Spring break review gives Blunt mixed marks

The governor has met three goals but also has faced budget troubles.
Monday, March 28, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:58 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY— It’s legislative spring break, which means it’s time for midterm evaluations. Today’s subject: Gov. Matt Blunt.

In office just 11 weeks, the new Republican governor already has accomplished at least three political goals with the help of a friendly Republican-led legislature. Lawmakers have sent Blunt bills renaming Southwest Missouri State University and overhauling the workers’ compensation system and how Missouri’s courts handle injury complaints.

But Blunt has run into some troubles with his budget proposals. He has been forced to repeatedly explain his plans to save the First Steps program for developmentally disabled children, after his budget initially proposed to eliminate it. House Republicans have been reluctant to embrace all his recommended cuts to health care.

And Blunt has faced some political criticism, primarily for his $120,000 office makeover and his use of representatives of special interest groups to help vet potential Cabinet appointees.

So far, “It’s a mixed record,” said Dave Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Though Blunt was successful on business initiatives, Robertson said, “The issues like First Steps were not handled as effectively as probably the governor would have liked. ... There were some missteps. And I think the jury is out on keeping the Republican coalition together for issues such as stem cells and the school funding formula, not to mention the state budget.”

Robertson raises two issues on which Blunt so far has been largely uninvolved, or would prefer not to be involved.

Although publicly trumpeting the need for a new school funding formula, Blunt has not been active in the early legislative work of crafting it. That might be a wise political move, said Richard Fulton, a political scientist at Northwest Missouri State University.

The strategy allows Blunt to endorse a solution, once lawmakers reach one, without being a target of criticism for embracing particular aspects that might change during the legislative process.

Blunt’s education rhetoric has been strong, making enactment of a new school formula essential for Blunt to claim full success in his first legislative session.

“What could get him if he’s not careful is the education budget,” Fulton said. The school funding formula “can stir up more (problems) in a bee’s nest than he ever thought of.”

Blunt has expressed opposition to legislation that would ban a certain form of early stem-cell research, commonly called “therapeutic cloning.” The issue is a tricky one for the governor, because it pits the social conservative base of the Republican Party (pushing for the ban) against its business base (opposing the ban).

Both groups supported Blunt’s campaign.

Passage of the stem-cell legislation would put Blunt in the awkward position of potentially vetoing a bill considered a priority by some of his fellow Republicans. Blunt wins if Republican legislative leaders save him from having to make that decision.

On stem-cell research, “I think he’s successful if it doesn’t come to his desk,” Fulton said.

Blunt, asked to rate his success so far, described the first half of the legislative session as “very productive,” but he played down his role in that.

“I don’t think it’s one person’s performance,” Blunt said. “We’ve been very fortunate that there’s a strong partnership of the state House and Senate leadership and this office to really do some meaningful things for the state.”

Democrats argue that Blunt’s legislative success doesn’t necessarily mean success for Missourians. House Minority Leader Jeff Harris of Columbia has described Blunt’s agenda of Medicaid cuts and limits on injury victims as “immoral” — something Blunt dismisses as “a wild charge.”

Democrats contrast Blunt’s proposed budget cuts with his own expense of nearly $120,000 for an office remodeling that included everything from new walls and carpet to computers and phones.

Blunt says it’s part of his effort to improve government efficiency, but Democrats say it flies in the face of that campaign pledge. They also suggest Blunt broke a campaign pledge by delaying state payments to universities because of budget troubles.

Blunt counters that his pledge not to withhold money from education applied only to K-12 schools, and the delayed funding does not qualify as a withholding.

But the early criticism doesn’t seem to have stuck to Blunt as it did to his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Bob Holden, said political scientist David Webber of MU.

Webber said Blunt is off to a “smooth, low-profile start.” With Blunt’s first semester midterm occurring during the NCAA basketball tournament, Webber uses a sports metaphor.

“In basketball vernacular, he’s played the first four minutes and he’s holding his own,” Webber said. “That’s much better than being down 10 points.”

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