LAKE OZARK — Republican Rep. Kenny Hulshof defended his fiscal conservative credentials Friday as rival Treasurer Sarah Steelman asserted her opponent lacks the courage to be governor because he did not stop special-interest spending in Congress.
In the first debate of the Republican gubernatorial primary season, Hulshof and Steelman both generally defended the need to reduce Medicaid costs while adding they were open to reversing — or tweaking — some of the cuts enacted in 2005. Although they spoke separately, Hulshof also clashed with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Nixon over higher education policies.
The most intense exchanges came over Steelman’s claim that Hulshof had been unwilling to block the insertion of special spending projects into the federal budget. She said that creates questions about Hulshof’s leadership.
“If you’re afraid to stand up and offer an amendment to take out some of those things that get slipped into these bills, what does that say? That says you don’t have the courage to run a state government,” Steelman said.
Hulshof, a congressman from Columbia, accused Steelman of trying to take his votes out of context, quipping that she didn’t understand the nuances of lawmaking in Washington.
“Am I a fiscal conservative? You bet I am — unapologetically and absolutely,” he said.
Hulshof said that his courage and leadership have been tested while in Congress and pointed out his part in an ethics investigation of then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Republican from Texas. The ethics committee eventually admonished DeLay, and Hulshof was removed from the committee.
“I know about standing up to people in places of power,” Hulshof said during the candidates forum hosted by several media organizations at a Lake of the Ozarks resort.
The focus on Hulshof’s congressional spending record started earlier this week when Steelman began running the first negative television ad in the Republican primary. That ad, airing in the Joplin and Springfield media markets, levies many of the same allegations she repeated Friday.
The two Republican candidates fielded questions in a debate format separately from Nixon, who does not face any significant opposition in the Aug. 5 primary elections. Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican, announced in January that he would not seek re-election.
Nixon, the state’s attorney general, said Missouri needs new health care and higher education policies, and accused the two leading Republican candidates of supporting many of Blunt’s policies.
“We can either continue down the same road with many of the same failed policies, or we can begin the process of taking our state in a new direction,” Nixon said. “I believe we need change.”
One of those policies involves the 2005 changes to the state Medicaid program that tightened eligibility thresholds and caused tens of thousands of Missourians to lose their government-funded health care.
Democrats opposed the move, and Nixon has called for the cuts to be reversed. The attorney general said Friday that the number of Missourians without insurance is increasing and attributed some of blame to the state’s decisions on Medicaid eligibility.
Hulshof and Steelman both said that the state’s budget made the Medicaid cuts necessary but signaled a willingness to roll them back in some places to help those who have been hurt.
But Hulshof said that doesn’t mean he would support “government-run health care or putting people back on the Medicaid rolls just for that purpose.”
Steelman said some people have suffered because of the cuts and would seek to restore dental coverage to adults on Medicaid.
On numerous issues the three governor’s candidates expressed largely similar positions:
— Increasing state gas taxes to solve a looming transportation funding shortage? No way.
— Picking people to run the states’ driver’s license fee offices? Competitive bidding with consideration for quality service.
— Millions of dollars in tax incentives to attract a Canadian airplane maker to build a Kansas City plant? Good idea, and even better after lawmakers trimmed down the price.
— Media shield law so journalists could avoid testifying about anonymous sources in some circumstances? Yes.
The governor’s plan to use some assets from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority to pay for college campus building projects, however, split Hulshof and Nixon. The student loan authority is to transfer $350 million to the state over six years to finance college building projects.
Earlier this year, MOHELA announced it would pay only part of a $5 million quarterly payment because of financial losses and uncertainty over the U.S. credit market. And last month, the Chesterfield-based loan authority announced it would stop offering some interest rate breaks for new borrowers.
Hulshof cited Nixon’s opposition to the plan as an example of partisanship in government, speculating that the attorney general opposed the MOHELA-financed college construction plan to deny Blunt a political victory.
“There were those, including the attorney general who worked with his colleagues, to say we don’t want this to be enacted because it would give credit to a Republican governor,” Hulshof said. “I think that is a disservice to people across the state.”
Nixon said paying for new buildings isn’t the mission of the loan authority and using its funds that way makes it harder for Missourians to get loans and afford college. He said he would appoint MOHELA board members who understand the mission and that he would use the state budget — instead of the loan authority — to pay for the ongoing construction projects.