JEFFERSON CITY • Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones stood before a group of reporters the other day, the words “Attorney General of Missouri” emblazoned on the glass window just behind him.
Jones had called a news conference in the lobby outside the attorney general’s office to demand an investigation into the Department of Revenue and its handling of private information, including concealed gun permits. But the Republican House leader — who says he may run for attorney general in 2016 — admitted that he had not spoken to the current attorney general before making his demand for the cameras.
Days later, Gov. Jay Nixon stood before more than 1,000 people in the Capitol and delivered a rousing call for the Legislature to expand the state’s Medicaid program — by far his main policy goal this legislative session. But afterward, reporters only wanted to ask him about the ongoing Department of Revenue controversy.
Visibly annoyed, the Democratic governor said the growing interest over his administration’s handling of private information threatens to “divert the attention of the public from what needs to get done” before the session ends.
The two scenes reveal the political underpinnings of the debate now captivating Jefferson City over the Department of Revenue’s new policy of collecting electronic copies of personal documents when Missourians apply for drivers licenses.
Republicans are loudly complaining about the new procedure, which, until last week, included scanning concealed weapons permits. And their criticisms only grew when officials admitted that the Missouri State Highway Patrol had twice handed over a list of concealed carry permit holders to the federal government.
Such complaints may help attract Missourians — many of them Republicans — who are concerned about Second Amendment rights and worried about the federal government’s reach.
Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said the group included voters essential to any Republican with eyes on statewide office.
“With this issue, they’re really trying to appeal to the people who would be participating in a Republican primary,” he said.
Nixon, for his part, was trying to forge an agreement on Medicaid expansion before the Department of Revenue controversy erupted. Now, his efforts to persuade the Legislature to take any action on Medicaid appear overwhelmed by the focus on the Department of Revenue.
Last week, in a bid to put the controversy behind him, Nixon accepted the resignation of the head of the department, who had been in the position only four months. Then, the governor ordered an end to the scanning of concealed carry permits as part of the driver’s license process. But GOP lawmakers continue to press forward on the issue, and there are no signs that they are going to drop it soon.
In the past few weeks, Republican lawmakers have held numerous investigative hearings and news conferences and have appeared on countless radio shows cultivating interest in the issue, and likely in themselves.
Senate Appropriations Chair Kurt Schaefer — a Republican from Columbia who has become a key figure in the document fight — called a five-minute break in the middle of a recent budget hearing to talk about the Revenue Department controversy on a conservative talk radio show.
Other Republicans also have waded into the fray, including Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer of St. Elizabeth and state Rep. Todd Richardson of Poplar Bluff.
Luetkemeyer held meetings with federal officials in Washington; and Richardson, seen as an up-and-comer in the House, launched a website, protectmyccw.com, to lodge complaints.
It’s not surprising that Missouri’s Republican leaders are criticizing Nixon. But with the Department of Revenue controversy, both Schaefer and Jones have managed to direct, and hold onto, the public’s focus, and their efforts could prove to be smart political maneuvering for two seen as rising stars among the GOP ranks.
The Republican Party is coming off of an election cycle in which only one Republican won statewide office, despite the GOP’s winning veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. That has set up opportunities for Republicans to run for higher office without the potential backlash from challenging an incumbent from their own party.
“The Republicans don’t have anybody who’s an obvious choice,” Squire said. “I think a number of Republican members of the Legislature see themselves as possible choices, and I think they’re spending a lot of time on that right now.”
Schaefer, 47, is term-limited in the Senate, so he can’t seek re-election to that post in 2016.
Jones, 41, will leave the House in 2015 because of term limits.
Both of their recently amended campaign finance records indicate they want to pursue statewide office runs in 2016.
Schaefer wouldn’t say what office he might seek.
“Right now, I’m focused on the next three years in the Senate and making sure state agencies follow the law,” he said Thursday.
Jones, on the other hand, has been candid about his aspirations.
“Attorney general has always appealed to me. Secretary of state has always appealed to me,” he said Thursday, adding that he also would consider a run for state auditor at some point if Republican Tom Schwiech left the office.
Jones’ campaign committee reported having more than $733,000 cash-on-hand at the end of March after an unopposed re-election bid last year.
Schaefer, who won a high-profile battle with Democrat Mary Still for his seat last year, reported having $19,363 in his campaign fund.
SHIFT FROM MEDICAID
At the beginning of the legislative session in January, all eyes were on Medicaid and whether Republican lawmakers would accept the billions of federal dollars that Missouri could receive if the state agrees to expand health care for the poor.
But now, with four weeks left in the session, expansion appears unlikely, and questions Republicans have raised over the Department of Revenue have pushed Medicaid from the headlines.
It started with a lawsuit filed in Stoddard County by a man who was told his personal documents would be scanned if he wanted to add his concealed carry status to his drivers license.
The lawsuit spurred interest at the Capitol. Where were those personal documents going?
The Department of Revenue maintains that scanned documents, such as birth certificates, marriage licenses, and, until last week, concealed carry endorsements, are going to a state database. Summary information is sent along to a third-party vendor that prints drivers licenses for the state, but the electronic copies of personal documents don’t leave Missouri, the department says.
Schaefer and others suspect the system is a back-door effort to implement new federal guidelines called Real ID. The state Legislature in 2009 passed a law to block the implementation of Real ID, an anti-terrorism measure adopted in the wake of 9/11 that has since spawned some privacy concerns.
On Tuesday, days after Schaefer’s committee held a hearing for several hours on the issue, Revenue director Brian Long resigned. Nixon announced the following day that the state would no longer scan concealed carry permits, a move he told reporters that he hoped would direct attention back to Medicaid.
But Republicans, by that time, had already expanded their concerns. Administration officials revealed that a list of Missouri’s concealed carry permit holders had twice been given to a federal Social Security fraud investigator. The revelation became fresh fodder for Republicans to criticize Nixon’s administration.
“At some point, the governor is going to have to step up to the plate, he’s going to have to be frank with Missourians about what’s being done with their personal information,” Schaefer said in a recent news conference.
After the Medicaid rally, an irate Nixon accused Republicans of stirring up a controversy to pull attention away from Medicaid.
“What you’re seeing is a major kerfuffle to try to change not only the public’s focus of attention … and to ignore what just has happened right here” at the rally, he said.
United for Missouri, a conservative-leaning advocacy group, has helped fan the flames with television ads and a website dedicated to criticizing Nixon’s administration over the issue.
Carl Bearden, a former state lawmaker from St. Charles who leads United for Missouri, said Nixon and others were underestimating public interest in the matter. He said he had received more than 17,000 emails from concerned Missourians.
“People are up in arms,” Bearden said. “It’s a high interest item, and (Nixon)’s not taking responsibility.”
Squire, the political science professor, said the gun and privacy issues are likely easier for Republicans to talk about than Medicaid — particularly as they find frequent allies like the Missouri Chamber of Commerce supporting the Medicaid expansion.
“They’d rather talk about things where voters on their side are likely to be pleased with their actions,” Squire said.
NIXON’S POLITICS AT PLAY
But it’s also political for Nixon. The governor, who in his previous term tended to wield most of his power through his veto pen, has staked significant political capital on the Medicaid issue.
Facing his own term limit, Nixon has to decide where he will fit into Democratic politics four years from now. Squire said Nixon had to use issues such as Medicaid expansion to appeal to Democratic voters if he wanted to make a Senate or presidential run.
Under the federal health care law, Missouri can expand Medicaid eligibility levels to cover an estimated 300,000 more low-income individuals, with the federal government picking up all of the costs of the new recipients for the first three years and continuing to pay 90 percent or more beyond that.
Nixon has made three dozen separate trips across the state to tout the expansion plan. He made it a highlight of his State of the State speech in January, and he has worked to build a diverse coalition of supporters, including clergy, law enforcement, business groups, labor unions and other advocates.
The governor also held rare meetings with the House and Senate caucuses in recent weeks, trying to garner support.
But the Republican majorities have stood united against expanding the program, which they say is already bloated and plagued with fraud and abuse.
Just as the Medicaid fight was set to hit the Appropriations Committee two weeks ago, Schaefer turned the budget hearings into inquisitions into the Revenue Department.
“It’s hard for me to believe that it’s a coincidence that Schaefer has been a key stumbling block in Medicaid expansion and, at this key time for expansion, he just happened to ratchet up this other issue,” said Sean Soendker Nicholson of the liberal advocacy group Progress Missouri.
Squire said he saw Schaefer’s shift as evidence that he was looking beyond the more liberal-leaning district he currently represents.
“It seems to me that he doesn’t see himself representing Boone County in the future,” he said. “I think he’s hoping to move statewide.”