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Missouri's GOP Gov. Parson reflects on past wins in his final State of the State address

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri's Republican Gov. Mike Parson looked back on past wins in his final State of the State address Wednesday, lauding his achievements after assuming leadership in the chaotic absence of his disgraced predecessor, Eric Greitens.

Parson, who at the time was serving as lieutenant governor, took over as the state’s top executive in 2018 after Greitens resigned rather than continue fighting possible impeachment and allegations of personal and political misconduct.

“We closed the chapter on scandal and began a new direction, because there was no turning back,” Parson said. “We declared a fresh start and the return of stability.”

As governor, Parson has worked to cultivate an image of a practical leader focused on tangible achievements for taxpayers as a contrast to Greitens’ tumultuous and aggressive governing style.

A highlight of Parson's achievements is his work to repair and improve the state’s roads and bridges, culminating last year with a $2.8 billion investment to extend Interstate 70 to six lanes across the state.

On Wednesday, he also pointed to numerous income tax cuts under his administration and his appointment of five statewide officeholders to fill vacancies.

Parson has not shied away from acting on more traditionally partisan issues. In 2019, he signed a law that eventually allowed Missouri to ban almost all abortions once the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Last year, he pushed lawmakers to pass legislation that banned gender-affirming health care for minors, with some exceptions.

For his final legislative session, Parson, who is barred by term limits from seeking reelection, made relatively modest budget and policy requests of lawmakers.

He wants lawmakers to make it a felony punishable by up to four years in prison, or longer for repeat offenses, to bring fentanyl near minors.

Parson also called for child care tax credits and another $52 million for child care subsidies. And he wants a $120 million increase in basic aid for schools, a 3% increase in primary funding for colleges and universities, and a 3.2% pay raise for state employees.

But dysfunction and infighting among Republicans has lawmakers worried that little will get done in the Legislature this year.

In the Senate, elected GOP leaders reached a breaking point this week with the Freedom Caucus, a defiant Republican faction. Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden removed several Freedom Caucus members from committee chairmanships and downgraded their parking spots, a move the targeted senators have said only escalated tensions in the chamber.

“Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking the prospects are good for much of anything important going through the Legislature this year,” House Democratic Minority Leader Crystal Quade told reporters after Parson's speech.

Quade, who is running to replace Parson as governor, blamed the inaction on “a small group of GOP extremists” who she said are “holding the legislative process hostage in an attempt to bully through legislation that’s unpopular with most lawmakers and definitely most Missourians.”

Republican state Sen. Bill Eigel, a Freedom Caucus member who is also running to succeed Parson, said he was most struck by what Parson didn’t include in his speech. Eigel noted Parson outlined no plan to make it harder to pass ballot initiatives such as one seeking to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution.

Changing the ballot measure process was a top priority cited by Republican legislative leaders this year.

“The only policy objectives he talked about were spending more money in this state,” Eigel said. “That’s a real disappointment to me.”

Meanwhile, most lawmakers are either up for reelection this year or running for higher office. With a glut of GOP lawmakers and slim chances for Democrats to win any statewide office, the upcoming elections have pitted Republicans against each other.

Parson said he has humble hopes for how he will be remembered as governor, and he hinted at plans to retire from public service as he pined for the view of his southern Missouri farm from "behind the windshield of my John Deere tractor.”

“If we’re honored enough to be considered by Missourians as a ‘pretty good governor,' ‘decent guy’ or ‘someone who never forgot where he came from,' then it will all be worth it,” Parson said.

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Associated Press writer David A. Lieb contributed to this report.