Skip to comments.Fred Barnes: Taking a Blunt Approach (Missouri's governor balances the budget without raising taxes)
Posted on 05/13/2006 1:46:28 PM PDT by RWR8189
Jefferson City, Missouri
THERE'S A SUREFIRE WAY for a Republican governor to lose favor with the public, the press, and Democrats: wipe out a state's budget deficit without raising taxes. This inevitably involves trimming spending on Medicaid, the out-of-control health care program for the poor that's become the largest expenditure in virtually every state's budget. Faced with a $1.1 billion deficit last year, Missouri governor Matt Blunt chose to restrain spending--especially Medicaid spending--and not to increase taxes. For months, he was pilloried in the Missouri media for cutting off Medicaid recipients. And his approval rating dropped in one poll to 33 percent.
Now, a year later, things are different. It turns out there is political life after spending cuts. Not only has Blunt's popularity risen, he has money to spend on schools and colleges and senior citizens. His spending cuts helped produce a surplus ($80 million) this year. Along with sweeping tort reform and a crackdown on excesses in workman's compensation, his no-new-taxes approach improved the business climate and drove down unemployment.
When General Motors announced it would boost its investment in a Missouri plant, the company's vice president, Joe Spielman, praised Blunt. "A lot of people talk about making their state or their community a good place to do business," he said. "I've got to tell you that this governor has delivered."
At 35, Blunt is the youngest governor in the country. He is not a political visionary, but a traditional conservative determined to hold down taxes and streamline government. "He'd find a way to sell the capitol and lease it back before he'd raise taxes," a lobbyist here says. And Blunt subscribes to a simple rule of politics and life: No pain, no gain.
He comes from a political family. His grandfather was a state legislator. His father, Roy Blunt, was secretary of state for eight years and now is Republican whip, the third-ranking post, in the U.S. House. Blunt graduated from the Naval Academy. After five years in the Navy, he arrived home in Springfield in southwest Missouri in 1998 with no firm career plans. As luck would have it, a state house seat in Springfield had become vacant. He ran and won, then ran statewide for secretary of state in 2000 and won again.
Blunt had made enough of a name for himself by 2004 that he was unopposed for the Republican nomination for governor. His Democratic opponent, Claire McCaskill, was formidable. She had defeated the incumbent governor, Bob Holden, in the Democratic primary. She ridiculed Blunt's youth and inexperience, and he zinged her on taxes. The election was so close McCaskill didn't concede until after midnight. Blunt won 51 percent to 48 percent, running behind President Bush's 53 percent in Missouri.
In capturing the governorship, Blunt rode a Republican wave that has transformed the politics of Missouri. For the first time in 84 years, Republicans control the governor's mansion, the state senate (23-11), and the state house of representatives (97-66). This may be the high-water mark for Republican control. Republicans expect to lose a few legislative seats this fall but retain control of both houses.
Harry Truman wouldn't recognize his home state. The biggest partisan realignment has come in rural Missouri, where conservative Democrats have turned into reliable Republican voters. The political map of the state is now mostly red with a strip of blue across the middle--the I-70 corridor--from St. Louis to Kansas City, the most populous cities, and running through liberal Columbia, home of the University of Missouri.
Republican victories statewide are hardly guaranteed. In fact, Republican senator Jim Talent is in a tight race for reelection this fall against McCaskill, currently the state auditor. "But Missouri has really changed," says Republican consultant Tony Feather. "It wouldn't be considered a swing state now."
Blunt symbolizes the change. He's neither glamorous nor especially charismatic. He's slight--maybe trim would be a kinder description--and has a gap between his front teeth. He won not as a lone wolf but as an unapologetic Republican. His campaign relied on conventional Republican issues like taxes, spending, government efficiency, and the economy.
As governor, "Matt is a consummate workhorse, not show horse," says Feather. "His usual expression is a perpetual poker-faced seriousness rarely graced by a smile," wrote Steve Kraske of the Kansas City Star. His emphasis on spending cuts has given Blunt a reputation for being cold-hearted, and he has done nothing to soften that image. He boasts of never second-guessing his decisions and sleeping well at night.
Blunt confronted a dreadful situation when he took office. Like most states, Missouri has a balanced budget requirement. And his Democratic predecessor, Holden, had used every fiscal trick he could find to meet this obligation while increasing spending. To cover the $1.1 billion deficit, Blunt would have to slash spending, raise taxes, or both.
If he had placed Medicaid off-limits to spending cuts and included a tax hike in his fiscal plan, Blunt might have averted a storm of criticism. But that would merely have postponed the budget crisis until this year. "Without the Medicaid cuts, Matt Blunt's poll numbers would be among the highest in the country," one of his state house allies insists. And that might be true.
But Medicaid spending was hard to ignore. It covered 16 percent of Missourians and took up 31 percent of the state budget. Blunt decided to investigate the program, deny benefits to those who were ineligible, and tighten the qualifications. He knew he'd be attacked, but the assault was worse than expected. It lasted for most of 2005. "He had his butt kicked over Medicaid," Feather says. Medicaid's share of the state budget, however, has shrunk to 29 percent.
By not flinching, Blunt made himself something of a hero to Missouri Republicans. They tend to gush. "I always come back to the word courage when I think of Matt Blunt," says Dan Mehan, the president of the Missouri chamber of commerce. "He's taken some positions that require a lot of guts," says Mike Gibbons, majority leader in the state senate.
Blunt was criticized for other spending cuts as well, including his elimination of spending for Alzheimer's research. "The state of Missouri is not going to cure Alzheimer's," he told me. Blunt also found that many Republicans had cherished programs they wanted to protect from elimination or cuts in funding. "Even the most conservative people, staunch fiscal conservatives, were upset about some specific program that was being reduced in size and scope."
In year two as governor--2006--Blunt is eager to make state government more lean and efficient. Last year, on his first day in office, he took away the power to collectively bargain that Governor Holden had granted state employees. And he's decreased the number of employees since taking office from roughly 63,000 to fewer than 60,000. "We're not going above 60,000 again," he announced at a meeting on the subject.
Blunt invited me to sit in on that and several other meetings last week. No doubt he and his aides were on their best behavior for my benefit. I was most intrigued by the session on state-owned vehicles. Many states don't know how many cars and trucks they own. Until last week, Missouri was one of them. A survey of state-owned vehicles in California couldn't account for some 10,000 of them.
Missouri, the governor's aides discovered, owns 10,834 vehicles. "We should announce that," Blunt declared. "That's a ridiculous number of cars for the state to own. . . . Knowing how many cars we have is a victory in itself." Blunt, by the way, is keen on flex-fuel vehicles that can run on gas or alternative fuels.
When he delivered his second state-of-the-state address in January, Blunt sounded like a man who'd won a jackpot. His pain in 2005 led to gain in 2006. Revenues were up, producing a surplus. And now he could talk about what politicians and particularly governors, including conservative governors, like to talk about: new spending programs--small ones in Blunt's case.
"The sun has risen and Missouri's economy is on the move," he said. "The new budget is balanced without new job-destroying taxes and without borrowing or accounting gimmicks. . . . The budget I am presenting is the first in eight years that requests funding for fewer than 60,000 state employees."
His agenda is not as bold or wrenching as last year's. He's proposed a tax credit for donations to crisis pregnancy centers, an idea suggested by a pro-life leader. But he's split with pro-lifers on stem cell research. He's backing a referendum to allow such research in Missouri.
He also requested a funding hike for, of all things, Medicaid. To fund it at the pre-2005 spending level would cost nearly $1 billion. Blunt wasn't proposing that. But he did get $308 million more for Medicaid, enough to continue health coverage for 16 percent "of our fellow citizens." It kept Medicaid's share of the budget at 29 percent and, just as important, kept the critics off his back.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.
I think so, but it's been 22 years since a fiscal conservative was elected president.
Give credit to the Hancock Amendment.
IMHO, Blunt's current unpopularity is just a temporary slump, and he should recover by 2008. But his current standing is helping the Senate campaign of Clare McCaskill, who was his 2004 opponent.
Worthly of an Xer ping
Ping list for the discussion of the politics and social (and sometimes nostalgic) aspects that directly effects Generation Reagan / Generation-X (Those born from 1965-1981) including all the spending previous generations (i.e. The Baby Boomers) are doing that Gen-X and Y will end up paying for.
Freep mail me to be added or dropped. See my home page for details and previous articles.
Needless to say, this did NOT occur (nor ever would!), and I told this 'outreach' person (flunkies in charge of doing nothing but expanding the welfare state by trying to sign up everybody and his dog) as much. This flunkie said, incredibly, ''I don' unnerstan'. Donchoo you want dese free benefits?'' I replied, ''Some citizens are actually honest. Shall I translate that into ebonics for you?'', and, after a 10-15 second pause (long flash-to-bang time, I know, but what can you expect from welfare state flunkies after all?) the conversation terminated rather abruptly.
During the Carnahan/Holden regimes, and due to their obscene outreach efforts, the number of people on the public teat went straight up. The number is still wildly high -- the cuts amounted to all of 6.7% of the number of people formerly on the Medicaid rolls, and the lefties were busily screaming 'Holocaust!' when Mr. Blunt announced them. This is/was hilarious in one sense: there are EASILY another 10-12-15% of Medicaid enrollees who do not belong there, and wouldn't be there in the first place, had the enrollment process not been so corrupted.
His unpopularity is due principally to the unfortunate fact that every single major media outlet in MO, of any type, is dead left. Mr. Bush probably sees more positive stories in the LBM than does Mr. Blunt. If not, it's d*mned close.
I'm honestly not bragging when I say I'm exactly the same way. I don't even like pushing the limits of my private insurance. There's this person I know who seems to me to be almost abusing the group insurance he/she gets and it struck me the other day that I see things differently than others. I was getting some cosmetic dental work done and I thought I wouldn't even want my insurance to cover this. Medical insurance is a major problem in this country and I don't want to be part of it.
22 years? I don't follow that. It would be 1984. If you're talking about Reagan, then consider that he was first elected in 1980. So that would be 26 years.
One is the current law.
The second would allow liberals to pay at the Bill Clinton rate.
Kind of satisfy both camps.
How many liberals would pay the higher amount?
That would be a sight to see.
lets get this man in the white house FAST!
I remember reading that Zell Miller cut spending, cut taxes and improved service in Ga.
Thanks for the ping, sleuth. You would not believe the beating he took on the Medicaid thing. The poor were going to die, children were going to die, the old were going to die, WE WERE ALL GOING TO DIE. Blunt is very popular with me, although I oppose taxpayer funding for embryonic stem cell research, but I hadn't heard that he was for that and the article just says he is willing to allow it in the state. He is a good steward of the people's money.
I am happy to get your opinion....even though I don't live in Missouri...I see that our political scene, because of the internet is much more entwined.
What one Governor does/doesn't do can affect other states...so I am glad to see what he accomplished..so I can use it re: Gov. Perry and his plans.
Re: fetal stem cell research...I would be disappointed also..but wouldn't move into the angry stage unless my government was advocating taxpayers PAY for it.
BTW..OT---did you get pinged to a Sunday Talk Show Pre-View thread???
I haven't seen one today...and I freepmailed phsstpok, but so far no answer...I wasn't able to participate last week...did he say something about being out of town this week??
As I recall, the medicaid cuts returned the medicaid rolls to what they were 3 or 4 years earlier, before they were ridiculously expanded. IOW most of those removed hadn't been there more than a couple of years.
One of the changes was (SHOCK!) to actually have those who could afford to pay something pay a little towards the cost of their "insurance".
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.