JEFFERSON CITY — For a freshman governor, Matt Blunt already has plenty of friends. With 120 fellow Republicans in the Legislature, Blunt theoretically could enact any proposal he likes, or stop anything he doesn’t. His own expectations are high.
Yet Blunt’s biggest challenge may be the Republicans’ own strength.
First, he must unify a Republican Legislature that because of the very size of its majority is likely to be more diverse than before. Then he must temper the majority’s potential to go too far too fast — to try to make up for more than 80 years in the minority in a mere 80 days.
Blunt, who takes office Jan. 10, should look no further than President Bush or former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich to see the pitfalls of leading a majority.
After Republicans won Congress in 1994 for the first time in about 40 years, Gingrich moved quickly to enact the campaign points in their “Contract with America.” Although some significant items passed, the Republican revolution waned as it reached for too much.
The Republican Congress still was dealing with Democratic President Bill Clinton, and it actually aided his re-election by miscalculating the political ramifications of its policies.
Bush now has the fortune of governing with a legislature controlled by his same party. Indeed, the Republican Congress has helped Bush enact some of his biggest priorities, such as tax cuts.
But Bush has been unable to unify Republicans on other matters.For example, Congress has failed to pass a highway funding bill because of intraparty divisions that have strong Missouri connections. Republican Sen. Kit Bond helped write a Senate version last year that would have spent far more than Bush proposed. When the House passed a somewhat smaller version (but still more expensive than Bush’s), Republican Rep. Roy Blunt — the future governor’s father — was among those voting against it because of Bush’s veto threat.
Blunt’s self-identified priorities as governor carry the potential for both overreaching and division in the Legislature.
Atop Blunt’s agenda are pro-business proposals to restrict personal injury lawsuits and workers’ compensations claims. Democratic Gov. Bob Holden has twice vetoed lawsuit bills passed by Republican lawmakers, and Democratic senators have stymied workers’ compensation bills.
Those failed bills weren’t as strong as some Republicans preferred because the sponsors were trying to get Holden to sign them, said Rep. Richard Byrd, R-Kirkwood, one of the architects of the lawsuit legislation.
Now with a stronger majority and Republican governor, GOP lawmakers could push for more. And Blunt may have to moderate to prevent a bill that exceeds the public appetite.
“Even with lots of like-minded legislators, it’s always hard to produce that final product for something like tort reform or workers comp reform,” Blunt acknowledged in an interview.
But political scientists say Blunt’s biggest challenge may be unifying Republicans to pass a new school funding formula, a priority Blunt places right up there with his business agenda.
School funding typically is a politically parochial matter, with each lawmaker looking out for his or her local school districts. The new Republican majority rose to power thanks to victories in rural and suburban Missouri, areas at polar extremes in the battle over school funding. Blunt will have to bring them together to pass a school funding bill.
“The Republicans are thinking ... ‘We’re just going to sail through all this stuff.’ But that’s all going to come to a crashing halt when it comes to education funding,” said political scientist George Connor of Southwest Missouri State University.
Blunt has made the challenge tougher by his own set of conditions, namely, no tax increases.
“It’s hard to craft a new school funding formula even when we have a lot of new money,” Blunt said. But “we’re going to try to draft a new formula without a lot of new money.”
With few Democrats at whom to point fingers, Blunt stands to bear the blame if his agenda fails or falters, be it by a divided or overreaching majority.
But Blunt isn’t trying to lower expectations — at least not much.
“I hope people do have high expectations for the administration. We hope to achieve a lot,” Blunt said. “At the same time, nobody should have unrealistic expectations on how quickly things will occur.”