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The Associated Press September 13, 2010, 9:48AM ET

Analysis: Mo. Gov. Nixon on an economic campaign

Gov. Jay Nixon is not on the ballot this year. But he is on a campaign of sorts.

It is a campaign to convince Missourians the state's economy is improving.

Nixon's main evidence is anecdotal yet tangible. He cites the decisions of a dozen specific businesses to add employees in Missouri. And he backs that up with statistics showing general growth in employment over the past six months.

But those figures are fickle and could just as easily be pessimistic. When comparing the past three months or 12 months - instead of six - Missouri's employment remains down. And a leading economic survey shows Missouri business growth may actually be waning.

But Nixon has been pumping up the positives, traveling to towns across Missouri to join businesses leaders in announcing the addition of anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred employees. He's attended five such announcements in the past five weeks and a dozen in the past four-and-a-half months.

In Perryville on Sept. 3, Nixon attended a groundbreaking for a new aircraft hangar being built for Sabreliner Corp. that he said would create more than 400 new jobs over the next five years.

"The company's decision to expand in Missouri is another clear demonstration of the positive momentum in our state economy," Nixon said.

A week earlier, Nixon traveled to the Missouri towns of Cuba and Houston to announce tax credits for building projects that he said will result in 37 new jobs at Meramec Electrical Products and 85 new jobs at Air Evac Lifeteam.

"It is another indication that Missouri's ongoing economic rebound is widespread, happening everywhere from our largest metro areas to our rural counties," Nixon said in a statement accompanying the announcement about Air Evac Lifeteam.

But is Missouri's economy really building momentum?

A survey of business supply managers conducted by Creighton University suggests it is not.

The monthly survey uses an index of 0 to 100 to gauge economic growth. Anything greater than 50 indicates an expectation of an expanding economy of the next three to six months.

Missouri's overall index has been above 50 for the past 14 months. But the university's Sept. 1 report showed Missouri's index dropped to 51.6 in August, down from 53.8 in July and 58.5 in June.

"The momentum - the pace of growth - is slowing and will be slowing in the months ahead" for Missouri, said Creighton University economics professor Ernie Goss, who oversees the report.

Nixon also has cited the fact that Missouri gained jobs in the past six months.

Indeed, Missouri's seasonally adjusted nonfarm employment was up 18,200 jobs in July when compared to its 13-year low point in January.

But employment in July - the latest month for which Missouri statistics are available - was down 4,800 compared to the 2010 high point in May and remained 11,600 jobs below July 2009.

Economists generally believe that governors have a rather limited ability to affect the overall state of their state's economy, particularly in the short-term.

Yet politicians know the economy tends to drive people's votes.

So that might explain why it's important for Nixon to persuade people that Missouri's economy is improving.

A poll conducted July 19-21 by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and television station KMOV asked 625 registered voters about the most important issue facing the state.

Sixty percent said the economy and jobs. That was triple the amount for the second most common response of government spending and taxes, and five times the amount for health care.

Understandably, Missouri's candidates for the U.S. Senate - Republican Rep. Roy Blunt and Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan - both have highlighted the economy in their campaigns this year.

Nixon isn't up for re-election until 2012, on the same ballot as President Barack Obama.

But it's important for Nixon and Obama to show now that they are working on the issue that voters care the most about. This past week, Obama outlined his latest economic plan - $50 billion of infrastructure spending, plus tax breaks to encourage business investment.

Nixon's approval ratings are above those of Obama in Missouri. And he could fare well if he can make the case that Missouri's economy is improving - regardless of national circumstances.

Asked recently about his series of local job-expansion ceremonies, Nixon said: "I think they're solid signs, I really do."

"Are we there yet to where we want to be? No. Do we have challenges? Yes," Nixon said.

"But I do think that we are making the solid, predictable progress that happens if you're a state that takes care of its resources, sharpens its economic development tools (and) is not afraid to compete to get jobs," Nixon said.


EDITOR'S NOTE - David A. Lieb has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995.

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