JEFFERSON CITY • After months of behind-the scenes work readying for his first official foray into state government, Missouri’s next governor spent last week on a cross-state “thank you” tour.
On Monday, after Eric Greitens is sworn in as the state’s 56th chief executive, the job may become more thankless.
Although the Republican newcomer is poised to enter elected office with his party in power in both chambers of the Legislature, he faces immediate and potentially tough hurdles as he navigates his way through his first few weeks in office.
They represent the kind of challenges all newly elected officials face. After making promises on the campaign trail, there are almost always other issues and events that distract and potentially sidetrack them from achieving their goals.
For the former Navy SEAL, it’s a trifecta of potential strife, including lagging state tax revenue, a striking level of sexual harassment allegations in one of the largest state agencies and a pitch by sports teams in St. Louis seeking millions of dollars in state assistance to build or upgrade their venues.
In a sign of how he may govern, Greitens has sought to confront those issues head on.
Hoping to address harassment of female workers at the Missouri Department of Corrections, Greitens announced last month the hiring of Ann Precythe to head up the agency just days after news broke that longtime state prison chief George Lombardi was resigning.
Precythe is a North Carolina prison official who will be subject to Senate approval. She will join a mix of state government outsiders and more established Jefferson City operatives to join Greitens’ team, including former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman as head of the Office of Administration, Anheuser Busch attorney Mike Roche as chief of staff and, as Roche’s deputy, former Rep. Caleb Jones of Columbia.
Other hires include former Huffington Post editor Jimmy Soni, former Senate legislative staffer Jennae Neustadt and Paul Eisenstein, who worked with Greitens at the Mission Continues veterans charity.
In between his staff moves, the governor-elect put his foot down on a bid by a St. Louis group to build a soccer stadium on state-owned land near Union Station, calling its request for state funds “welfare for millionaires.”
But on Saturday, at an appearance in Maryland Heights, he said he’s open to talking with the soccer coalition.
“You know, we had a very frank conversation with them and we’re willing to sit down and talk with anybody who’s excited about bringing private investment to the state of Missouri. We made our position very clear about public financing. We’re opposed to public financing to build new stadiums,” Greitens said.
He also did not dismiss a separate proposal by the St. Louis Blues to upgrade the Scottrade Center.
“I look forward to sitting down and meeting with the owners of the Blues and meeting with business owners throughout the state of Missouri. Our job is to make sure we’ve got more jobs and higher pay for the people of Missouri,” Greitens said.
As for the budget, Greitens is expected to quickly announce a series of budget cuts to accommodate an unexpected slowdown in state tax collections. But, in a sign that he is buying more time to study the overall issue of the state budget, Greitens has said he won’t outline his spending blueprint for the next fiscal year until February.
At issue are tax dollars that are coming in more slowly than legislators and outgoing Gov. Jay Nixon projected when they were crafting the current budget.
The rising cost of health insurance for poor Missourians could leave Greitens with little wiggle room for any new initiatives.
“I would anticipate seeing cuts to a lot of other programs in order to just pay the bills related to Medicaid,” said new House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob.
Republicans who control the House and Senate say the political newcomer is making the right moves as he maneuvers from private life as the head of a charity for veterans to managing a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.
“We’re very excited about the new partnership there,” House Speaker Todd Richardson told reporters after Greitens met with his GOP super-majority behind closed doors on Wednesday.
In the Senate, Greitens has made it a habit to check in with top Republican leaders on at least a weekly basis.
Although GOP officials agree on his approach to anti-union, pro-business legislation like making Missouri a right-to-work state, Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard is offering less insight into some of Greitens’ other proposals.
“I’m trying to be respectful of the governor-elect until he’s made his State of the State [speech],” Richard said. “I just don’t want to get out in front of him. I want to give him a chance to make his statements and then we’ll try to talk to him. I don’t want to step on his toes.”
Friends say Greitens will tackle problems that arise head on.
Ryan Manion of Philadelphia, whose brother, Travis Manion, fought alongside Greitens in Iraq and was killed in action there, said Greitens would respond to the challenges he faced as governor “the same way he has faced all the other challenges throughout his life.”
“As governor I know he will respond with an approach that is thoughtful and best for the people of Missouri. Eric embodies all that exemplifies a servant leader, and servant leaders put others before self,” Ryan Manion told the Post-Dispatch Friday.
Chuck Bryant, a St. Louis investment professional, said his friend didn’t back away from challenges.
“He had the courage to volunteer to be a Navy SEAL, and the intestinal fortitude to pass the training. After the Navy, he was frustrated by the way our disabled vets were being treated, so he founded The Mission Continues,” Bryant said in an email Friday.
Greitens, who beat Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster on Nov. 8, is among 32 other GOP governors, the most in the nation in 94 years.
On Monday, after being sworn in, Greitens inherits a new place to live in the Governor’s Mansion. The Central West end resident also will begin receiving a state salary of $133,820 per year. And, he’ll have a phalanx of taxpayer-paid guards traveling everywhere he goes.
Top Republicans in the Legislature say they are trying to help Greitens overcome his learning curve.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, said he was tutoring the new governor on state road funding options.
“He’s just getting into the weeds on that,” Kehoe said. “The governor understands we have a transportation problem. He understands there is a funding gap.”
With little appetite among Greitens and his fellow Republicans for raising taxes, it is unclear how Missouri will deal with a backlog of road and bridge repairs in the coming years. Members of the Senate last year supported an increase in the gasoline tax to pay for road repairs, but the measure didn’t make it to Nixon’s desk.
Kehoe believes Greitens will have to take the lead on finding a transportation funding solution in order for the Legislature to agree to a plan.
“My hope is that once the governor understands the problem and we coalesce around a solution that he will lead with those solutions,” Kehoe said.
Greitens also has reached out to Democrats, even though they do not agree on issues such as right-to-work or legal reform.
Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, said the governor-elect contacted each of the Democratic senators after he won. She is hoping for a face-to-face meeting in the coming days.
“I’m willing to give the guy a chance,” Gina Walsh said. “This is all new and exciting for all of us.”