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

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.