The Magazine

Taking a Blunt Approach

Missouri's governor balances the budget without raising taxes.

May 22, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 34 • By FRED BARNES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.