State of the State

By Phill Brooks
    Missouri's new governor, Mike Parson, has done something simple, but remarkable to return one of the governor's major duties to a more substantive platform. He changed the time of the annual State of the State address from the evening hours to mid-afternoon.

    That's more significant than you might realize. It returned the State of the State address from a theatrical show designed for a TV audience back to a more substantive public policy presentation to lawmakers.
    The state Constitution actually does not require a speech to the legislature. It does not even use the term "State of the State."
    Instead, the Constitution only requires that the governor deliver "to the general assembly information as to the state of government and shall recommend to its consideration such measures as he shall deem necessary and expedient."
    For as long as I've covered the statehouse, the nicknamed "State of the State" presentation always has been a formal speech to a joint session of the legislature—just like the "State of the Union" address to Congress by the president.
    For many years, governors made their legislative presentations during the day. But in 2005, that changed. Gov. Matt Blunt gave his address in the evening to get a television audience in prime-time hours. Although being a bit brief, the content of Blunt's speech retained a focus on policy.
    However, many subsequent governors seemed obsessed with the video possibilities, both for what they hoped would be a large TV audience, but also for potential campaign video. It changed the address from a policy discussion with legislators to a TV show.
    It had become a stage performance that I suspect would be unimaginable to the earlier governors I have covered. One demonstration of this focus on a TV appearance was governors practicing their presentations behind closed doors of the House chamber the night before.
    I was not surprised at Parson's decision about the timing of his speech. As a legislator, I found him to be more focused on policy and process than theatrics.
    His speech was not a detailed policy presentation. But it also was not a speech to rally the public. Instead, it was a presentation to inspire legislators about Parson's vision—more akin to what I suspect had been the objective of our Constitution's authors.
    But there also were some surprises on the day of the State of the State.
    Unlike prior administrations, for the pre-speech briefing by the governor's budget director, Parson's administration did not to provide a summary table breaking down how the governor was recommending funds be allocated among state departments.
    So our questions of the budget director were not as focused on policy decisions like past years, but were dominated by questions that easily could have been answered by the two-page summary showing how much would be spent on areas like education and welfare—leaving time for more substantive and detailed questions.
    I wondered if the administration thought that by delaying release of that information, it would difficult in the hectic hours later in the day to uncover an ugly truth about the budget—that a projected small growth in tax collections and legally mandated spending increases for Medicaid were leaving fewer extra dollars for public schools and universities.
    But the biggest surprise on the State of the State day for me was Parson's decision to continue the practice of recent governors refusing to take questions about the details of his recommendations immediately after his speech.
    Previous governors had an excuse when their speeches were given in the evening—it was too late for a news conference. But with Parson's speech in mid-afternoon, there was plenty of time.
    To his credit, he did have various executive branch officials in his office after his speech for us to ask questions about the governor's plans. But I wanted to ask the man himself about his recommendations for the next day stories.
    Does the growth in Medicaid costs despite a declining number of recipients cause Parson to wonder whether the recent expansion of managed care was a mistake? As a Republican conservative, does he have any concerns about a $350 million bond-issue debt to repair and replace deteriorated bridges?
    Avoiding those kind of questions after his address is so out of character for the man I covered when he was in the legislature and lieutenant governor. He had been among the most accessible and candid officials I've covered.
    But I'll write more about that in a future column.
    EDITOR’S NOTE: Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.

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