Nixon’s appointment, big salary for Nietzel stirs concern, dissatisfaction

Gov. Jay Nixon may have opened up a new political and re-election controversy with his announcement last week that Mike Nietzel would be “joining the Governor’s staff on a full-time basis as a senior policy advisor.”

In the news release announcing Nietzel’s appointment, Nixon said the retired college educator will be a “trusted” advisor “as we continue our work to create jobs, grow our economy and move Missouri forward.”

But the biggest part of the controversy may be Nietzel’s $100,000 salary — a number reported in The Associated Press story about the appointment, but that was not included in the news release.

State Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, is the only Mid-Missouri lawmaker — so far — to answer a News Tribune request for comment on the situation.

“While I am sure that Mr. Nietzel’s credentials are excellent, paying $100,000+ for this job seems excessive,” Kehoe wrote in an e-mailed response. “I know many former Senior Policy Advisors to governors, and to my knowledge, none have been paid this much money.”

The position apparently is new. That’s how The AP reported it. And Sam Murphey, whom Nixon elevated to communications director last week, didn’t answer a News Tribune question asking if the position was filling “a hole” created by other staffers’ departures, or if the job was “an additional position in state government.”

In his e-mailed response to our questions, Murphey said: “With his decades of experience in higher education, Mike Nietzel’s continued service as a full-time senior policy advisor will be a benefit to the people of Missouri.”

A Nixon news release last week noted that, since April 2010, after leaving the Missouri State presidency, Nietzel was “a policy advisor to the Governor on education and other issues.”

MSU also had assigned Nietzel to teaching a psychology class at the Springfield university.

Murphey told the News Tribune: “Mike’s salary will be paid from the Governor’s office budget.”

But even that is controversial for some.

Kehoe said: “I continue to hear, as I am out and about at events, ‘Governor Nixon’s staff is the highest paid staff ever.’”

The Missouri Republican Party was quick to note, in its own news release, that Nietzel “becomes the 6th Governor’s Office staffer with a six-figure salary.”

Nietzel, who has a Ph.D., served from 2005-10 as the ninth president of Springfield’s Southwest Missouri State University — which became a university in 1972 — and the first to head the school under its new name, “Missouri State University.”

Before coming to Missouri, Nietzel held various jobs at the University of Kentucky over 32 years.

The appointment has drawn critical comments from area newspaper readers, who can post them anonymously as online comments to the story.

Those comments included noting state employees have had no raises for several years and have been asked, by Nixon, to do more with less while there’s been a general hiring freeze.

We also sent questions to state Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer, RColumbia, and Reps. Jay Barnes and Mike Bernskoetter — both R-Jefferson City — and Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane.

All represent districts with a large number of state employees.

None was available to comment on Nietzel’s appointment or his $100,000 salary.

“Adding such a high paying position while at the same time cutting the state’s workforce to save money sends a decidedly mixed message and is, quite frankly, a bit insulting to the remainder of the state’s workforce who would appreciate even a meager raise, much less a salary of this sort,” Kehoe said.

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