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Utah budget director to be 'super executive' in Michigan

Published: Sunday, Dec. 5 2010 1:43 a.m. MST

Helen Thatcher, left of the Dept of Work Force Services and John Nixon of the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget testifies before a legislative meeting about cuts to the general assistance program in room 125 at the Utah State Capital Thursday June 29, 2006. August Miller/ Deseret Morning News

August Miller, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's budget director said he just couldn't turn down the opportunity to become one of six "super executives" helping Michigan's new GOP governor run that state.

Not only has John Nixon been named Michigan's new state budget director by Gov.-elect Rick Snyder, he's also going to oversee the governor's new "value for money" group of department heads.

Under what is being seen as a major restructuring of Michigan's state government, groups of department heads will report to the six appointed executives rather than to the new governor.

"It's actually quite a big role," Nixon said of the appointment made by Snyder, a businessman who has promised to "reinvent" the nation's eighth largest state when he takes office Jan. 1.

The new post also means more money for Nixon, who has been Utah's budget director for the past five years and earned just over $124,200. Just how much more he will make in Michigan, he won't say.

"They were willing to pay what it took," Nixon said. "It was a significant package that they offered me. … I will say they were willing to pay for good Utah talent."

Michigan's outgoing budget director, Bob Emerson, earns just over $135,200 annually but does not have the same executive responsibilities. A spokesman for the incoming governor did not return a phone call about Nixon's salary.

Nixon's departure won't come until after Utah Gov. Gary Herbert unveils his proposed state budget on Dec. 10. But he'll already be on the job in Michigan when the 2011 Legislature begins in mid-January.

"I don't think it's going to be an impact at all. I think it will be fine," Nixon said of not being around to defend Herbert's budget next session. "Gov. Herbert knows his budget ….I was there to help him, but he has control of the budget."

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said a new budget director won't hurt Herbert with the GOP-dominated Legislature.

"I don't look at it as giving us an edge, because we're all on the same page," Waddoups said. "We do a lot of work together to put together the best budget we can."

Kirk Jowers, an adviser to the governor and the head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said even though Herbert already has a budget under his belt, Nixon will be missed.

"Certainly, the governor's life would be easier with John staying through the legislative session," Jowers said. "He could make the governor's case quite forcefully" and could tell "if games were being played."

Herbert spokeswoman Angie Welling said the governor won't name a new budget director until after he releases his budget. "The focus is on getting the budget completed," she said.

Nixon said he initially wasn't interested when he was approached by Snyder's transition team about three weeks ago, just one of a number of contacts he said he's received from other states.

"I wasn't looking for anything. My guy just got re-elected," Nixon said. After several trips back to Michigan, though, he changed his mind about moving from his home state for the first time.

"From a career standpoint, I think this is going to be a great opportunity," Nixon said, acknowledging it was a difficult decision. He and his wife have six children, ages 2 to 14.

But he downplayed any ambition beyond Michigan.

"I'm not taking the job to wind up in Washington, or to wind up in New York or California," he said. "If opportunities open up, I'll consider them."

e-mail: lisa@desnews.com

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