Blunt proposing millions of dollars in new spending

Monday, January 14, 2008

Blunt's nearly daily announcements of new spending proposals have raised some eyebrows

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Gov. Matt Blunt relishes a reputation as a fiscal conservative, but he has proposed hundreds of millions of dollars of new spending as a lead-up to his annual State of the State address.

Blunt's nearly daily announcements of new spending proposals have caught the attention -- and raised the eyebrows -- of some of his fellow Republicans in the legislature who will now have to decide whether to grant his wishes.

Blunt is to outline his budget and policy priorities Tuesday evening. But he has been trickling out his spending proposals since early October.

Already, Blunt has announced his intention to seek a $121 million increase in basic funding for public K-12 schools, the amount called for under the state's funding formula.

Likewise, Blunt has proposed a $40 million increase in core funding for public colleges and universities; a nearly $248 million increase in the basic budget for MO HealthNet, formerly known as the Medicaid health-care program for the poor; plus nearly $53 million to increase Medicaid payment rates to physicians; and a $14 million increase for the Department of Corrections.

Other budget items

But Blunt hasn't limited his advance spending announcements to big budget items.

On Friday, for example, he announced he would seek $40,555 for a new office to focus on women veterans' issues. The day after Christmas, Blunt proposed an additional $100,000 for the State Historical Society of Missouri. He kicked off his parade of budget announcements three months ago with a pledge to support $500,000 in aid for new veterinarians who work with farm animals, as called for by a law passed last year.

The governor's office hasn't kept a running total of how much new spending he has proposed.

But by adding the dollar figures from his various news releases, Blunt appears to already have embraced more then $700 million of spending beyond the current budget.

For context, this year's total state budget stands at $21.5 billion.

It's not unprecedented, nor necessarily unusual, for Missouri budgets to rise by $1 billion from year to year. In fact, the budget passed during Blunt's second year in office was more than $1.6 billion larger than the one enacted during his first year.

Blunt's image

But Blunt has built an image as a budget cutter, not a big spender.

The Republican governor's most remembered budget move probably remains the Medicaid cuts enacted during his first year in office, which he said were necessary to balance the budget. Since then, Blunt has continued to emphasize ways -- both big and small -- that his administration has saved money.

Yet for the past three months, Blunt has emphasized the many ways he wants to spend money.

It's starting to make some fiscal conservatives a little nervous.

House Budget Committee chairman Allen Icet said he asked his chamber's appropriation staff to try to tally it all up.

"If someone has to get to a balanced budget, I will be the one who does that, it's as simple as that," explained Icet, R-Wildwood.

The governor's budget recommendations go first to the House, then the Senate. Legislative budget writers always face pressure from lobbyists and fellow lawmakers looking to direct money to their favorite causes.

When the governor makes public a long list of increased spending priorities, it intensifies that pressure.

"It does become a little more difficult to say no," Icet said.

New Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, also acknowledged he felt additional pressure because of the governor's many publicly announced spending proposals.

"It makes it more challenging," Nodler said.

But Nodler notes that Blunt has yet to reveal his proposed savings for particular programs, which could offset at least some of the proposed spending.

Last year, lawmakers granted Blunt's request to leave about $200 million unspent so it could be carried over to the next year. Because tax revenues came in better than expected and agencies didn't spend all their appropriated money, the state actually ended the 2007 fiscal year with far more than that on hand.

Add in the projected growth in state tax revenues for next year, and Blunt and lawmakers could have about $700 million in additional state revenues to spend. And that doesn't include the additional federal money that flows to Missouri whenever the state spends its own dollars on certain programs, such as Medicaid.

Budget officials for the Senate and Blunt's administration confirmed the logic used to calculate that amount, though they said they cannot reveal the actual amount of additional money they believe is available until Blunt's budget announcement on Tuesday.

The bottom line is that Missouri may have more than enough money to cover Blunt's many spending proposals.

The Associated Press recently asked Blunt whether he was worried his new spending proposals might tarnish his self-embraced image as a fiscal conservative. He asserted: "It would be a pretty hard case to make."

"I'd like to see somebody try to argue that I'm not a fiscal conservative, that I'm not willing to do anything to balance the budget and protect taxpayers," Blunt said in a sort of challenge. "If there's an Achilles heel out there, that's not it."

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