By Phill Brooks
As the Kansas City Star noted just before the legislature went on its spring break, it's been a rough beginning for Missouri's Republican governor. The Republican-controlled House sidelined Mike Parson's idea for a state bond-issue debt to repair bridges.
Republicans also have questioned his idea to provide scholarships to low and middle income adults to finance college degrees for better jobs.
While that measure cleared the House with support from a majority of Republicans, a sizable block of Republicans voted against the bill including the House Republican leader and the House Budget Committee chair.
Another indication of the governor's legislative disconnect involves the former Revenue Department director, Joel Walters, who mishandled alerting Missourians that their tax refunds would be lower than expected and some would have surprise notices that they owed more money.
After harsh legislative committee questioning of Walters, Parson lashed out at his Republican colleagues accusing them of "political grandstanding" in a statement reported by the Post-Dispatch.
He stood by his embattled Revenue Department director until the Columbia Tribune reported that Walters had suppressed a news release that would have provided a clear warning about the tax-refund situation months earlier. Walters announced his resignation the day after that story.
Parson's handling of these issues is a complete opposite of the man I covered when he was in the Missouri Senate. He was a skilled negotiator who could bring together differing sides.
He demonstrated that when he built a coalition of animal-rights advocates and livestock farmers to modify the voter-approved restrictions of "puppy mills" that farmers feared endangered their livelihoods.
As a senator, Parson's door always was open. But his approach has changed since he became governor. I've not seen Parson wandering legislative hallways to confer with lawmakers. His access by reporters is brief and tightly constricted.
That approach contrasts with the most successful governors I've covered who left historic legacies. They were intensely and visibly engaged in the legislative process.
Warren Hearnes, Kit Bond and Mel Carnhanan stand out from their successors who where secretive and somewhat isolated from the daily workings of the General Assembly.
Hearnes actually spent some legislative days sitting in a House member's office across the hallway from the chamber for legislators and reporters to wander in.
From those discussions there was no way Hearnes would be caught off guard by a Revenue Department scandal.
From easy-access discussions with legislators and reporters, Parson could have learned there were legitimate questions about Walters' management of the Revenue Department and his inconsistent responses at legislative committee hearings.
Instead, Parson's access to journalists has become almost as restricted as Eric Greitens.
It's been such a dramatic change in Parson's approach that I wonder if he's been over-handled by staff and/or advisers. If so, they are doing him a disservice. They should let Mike Parson be himself.
He's a knowledgeable and engaged public official who should have nothing to fear by becoming more personally involved in the legislative and public policy process. His rural, rancher way of talking rises above political double-speak that impresses me.
And when he feels strongly about an issue, he can be among the most inspiring state orators I've covered. He demonstrated that when he rose on the Senate floor to become the first Republican to attack fellow Republicans for a demeaning social media attack ridiculing State Auditor Tom Schweich's physical stature just days before his suicide.
So, my advice for the governor would be to throw away the prepared statements of your staff in tightly controlled settings. Instead, be yourself. He knows how to relate with legislators, learn from their perspectives and develop coalitions for success.
More importantly, Parson listens and has a rural, relaxed manner that encourages open, blunt conversation. Granted, Parson is facing a conservative dominated legislature not particularly sympathetic to expanding debt for roads or education entitlement benefits.
But the Parson I knew in the Senate would have crafted compromises that won support. Maybe that's what he's doing behind the scenes.
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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