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Blunt wants to cut Medicaid, boost education

January 26, 2005
By: Ben Welsh
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Here come the cuts.

Gov. Matt Blunt delivered the State of the State address to the Missouri House Tuesday night and proposed slashing the budget by $1.1 billion. The cuts include the elimination of 1,194 state jobs, the privatization of state services and the end of Medicaid coverage for "thousands" of Missourians.

Overall, the Blunt budget is slightly larger than last year's -- $19.3 billion compared to $19.2 billion. The governor said massive cuts were needed to hold even.

"I do not and will not support increasing the tax burden on Missouri families," Blunt said. "This means that we must make responsible and often difficult decisions in the rest of the budget."

Democrats were quick to charge that Blunt had betrayed a promise by cutting Medicaid rolls, something he said he was "inappropriate" during his campaign.

"The Republicans always want to hold our feet to the fire and accuse us of not keeping our promises," said Sen. Maida Coleman, a Democrat from St. Louis. "This is something that he said he would not do."

The Blunt team did not make any statistics immediately available about how many poor Missourians would lose their Medicaid coverage under their plan. But Blunt's interim budget director, Mike Keathley, estimated the number was "in the thousands."

"No question about it thousands," said state Auditor Claire McCaskill, who lost to Blunt in the Nov. election. "If you're going to start by establishing trust, to break a very clear pledge he made during the campaign is not a way to keep trust with Missourians."

Blunt said the cuts were necessary to balance the budget.

"Without reform, Missouri will spend a larger percentage of our total budget on Medicaid than all but one other state," Blunt said. "Without aggressive action we cannot properly fund education, or any of the other public policy priorities."

Also proposed was the transfer of mental health patients from public institutions to privately owned facilities, where Blunt said they would "enjoy a higher quality of life." The Bellefontaine mental health facility would be shuttered and its 1300 patients transferred to private facilities.

The budget also proposes the closing of 11 state run motor vehicle branches. They would be replaced by privately run fee offices.

Along with the cuts come an array of budget boosts. They included a one percent pay raise for state employees, excluding political office holders, and the establishment of a DNA database of all convicted felons.

Most highly touted was a $170.6 million increase in funding for public schools, a 4.7 percent raise from last year. However, even with the bump, education funding will still fall short of the amount recommended by the state foundation formula. The funding system is widely considered unconstitutional and the statehouse is under legal pressure to get it resolved this session.

Blunt did not offer a solution to the problem but he said its repair was on the top of his legislative agenda. He said he favors a new system that would distribute gaming revenues to schools on a per student basis and open up the possibility for schools to implement a local sales tax instead of relying on the traditional property tax based system. He emphasized that the new formula should remain optional.

Blunt also delivered a long expected promise to consolidate the state's technology services into one office in the Department of Administration.

During his speech, Blunt voiced support for a long list of legislation. He signaled his support for workers' compensation bill that was approved by a Senate committee earlier in the day and spoke out for telecommunication deregulation. He advocated measures to reduce the cost of medical malpractice insurance, and a $250,000 cap on damages in civil lawsuits. He also pushed the stiffening of laws against those who perform abortions on teenagers without parental consent and the expansion of the transportation committee by two members.

Blunt delivered the speech to a standing room only crowd gathered in the Missouri House chamber. His speech was punctuated by rounds of standing applause from Republican legislators and visitors on the gallery.

The governor introduced a variety of guests throughout his speech. They included a pair of students, a St. Louis police officer, a medical doctor and two members of the armed services who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Blunt's proposals will need approval from the Missouri General Assembly before t hey go into effect. They will presented to the House as a series of bills.