ANALYSIS: Blunt cites budget cuts as greatest success

Saturday, January 10, 2009 | 5:56 p.m. CST; updated 6:47 p.m. CST, Saturday, January 10, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — The defining moment of Matt Blunt's tenure as Missouri governor came just 17 days into his term.

On Jan. 26, 2005, Blunt outlined a budget replete with cuts, including the elimination or reduction of Medicaid health care benefits for thousands upon thousands of low-income adults.

Blunt cites his efforts to balance Missouri's budget as his greatest success.

Democrat Jay Nixon, who succeeds him at noon Monday, casts the Medicaid cuts as Blunt's biggest failure.

At the very least, Blunt's budget and Medicaid moves were among his most memorable actions, with the most direct effect on Missourians.

Blunt, 38, is the first Missouri governor to voluntarily leave office since governors were given the chance of seeking a second term about 40 years ago. He stunned foes and allies alike when he announced in January 2008 that he would not run for re-election.

At the time, Blunt explained: "We have achieved virtually everything I set out to accomplish, and more."

If success is measured by checking off a task list, few could dispute Blunt's assertion.

Aided by a Republican-led legislature, Blunt enacted almost all of his policy proposals.

Among them: restrictions on liability lawsuits and workplace injury claims; a new school funding method with annual increases for K-12 education; job creation incentives; tougher penalties on child sex offenders; more stringent laws targeting methamphetamine makers; an ethanol mandate for gasoline; abortion restrictions; more protections against the use of eminent domain; new laws targeting illegal immigrants; various tax cuts; expanded college scholarships; and a $350 million college construction plan financed with money from Missouri's student loan authority.

"He was successful in getting his agenda turned into law; there's no doubt about that," said political scientist Dave Robertson of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "The impact of that agenda is much more debatable."

Blunt's college construction plan has hit a bump, because it relies on money from Missouri's now financially strapped student loan authority.

His support for a constitutional amendment protecting embryonic stem cell research caused a rift with some fellow anti-abortion Republicans.

Just months after the ethanol mandate kicked in, Republican Sarah Steelman pushed for its repeal as part of her unsuccessful bid to succeed Blunt as governor.

And Nixon made restoration of Blunt's 2005 Medicaid cuts his No. 1 campaign priority. Nixon won in a landslide over Republican Rep. Kenny Hulshof.

"If Jay Nixon won the election because of the Medicaid cuts, then it's obvious the people of Missouri weren't satisfied with Gov. Blunt's solution to the economic problem," said George Connor, chairman of the political science department at Missouri State University in Springfield, which is Blunt's hometown.

Yet Blunt believes time will prove him correct.

Missouri began its 2009 fiscal year with a surplus of hundreds of millions of dollars accumulated partly because of previous budget cuts. The state is tapping that money as the national economic recession diminishes its tax revenues.

Although Missouri now is projected to run a shortfall this year, its financial condition could have been worse had officials not built up reserves.

"The policies we set in 2005, and across these four years as we've crafted budgets, have placed Missouri in a dramatically better budget position than other states," Blunt said in an end-of-term interview with The Associated Press. "And we've done that without raising taxes. In fact, we've cut taxes."

In a late-2007 public opinion poll conducted before Blunt bowed out of the governor's race, a majority of respondents said they opposed Blunt's handling of the state's health care system.

But if it's not apparent to some already, "I think it will be apparent in the future that we will never be able to go back to the old Medicaid system. It was totally unaffordable," Blunt said.

Blunt's Insure Missouri plan could have restored coverage to some of those affected by his 2005 cuts by expanding government-subsidized health care to low-income Missourians. But it failed to even come up for debate in the House last year because of opposition from some fellow Republicans.

That was one of Blunt's more glaring failures.

The other occurred in 2007, when the House soundly defeated a proposal that could have indirectly used state money to allow students in St. Louis and Kansas City public schools to attend private schools. Opponents compared the tax credit plan to state vouchers.

Although pleased about school funding increases, Blunt describes his biggest frustration as the unmet need for "further transformation of education."

Still lingering as Blunt leaves is an investigation into his office's e-mail deletions and the 2007 firing of an office attorney. Legal battles over those matters have cost taxpayers about $1.5 million.

Investigators for the attorney general's office are to produce a report by Jan. 26 on whether Blunt's office violated Missouri's public records laws.

Their investigation arose after ex-Blunt aide Scott Eckersley claimed he was fired in September 2007 after cautioning colleagues that e-mails may need to be retained as public records. Blunt says Eckersley was fired for other reasons, including doing excessive amounts of private business from his state office.

In his departing interview, Blunt defended his office as the most transparent ever, noting his creation of a state spending Web site and a new e-mail archiving system, among other things.

Robertson believes the e-mail issue will be as much of a part of Blunt's legacy as the Medicaid and budget cuts. The other most memorable Blunt action, Robertson said, may be what he didn't do — that is, seek re-election.

"People are still asking questions about why he decided not to run for office again," seemingly not satisfied with Blunt's original explanation, Robertson said. "As long as there's a mystery, it's going to be filled with people's own explanations, and they're not always going to be kind."

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