Governor softens image in recent address

Gov. Matt Blunt is trying his best to show you his softer side.

In announcement after announcement, Blunt promotes any proposal to increase funding for public services. He recently touted his support spending $6.3 million to help low-income people insulate their homes and cope with winter heating bills.

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He wants to loosen restrictions on the Children’s Health Insurance Program to help restore coverage for children in moderate- and low-income families who cannot afford health insurance. And he has proposed extending state medical coverage for children emerging from the foster care system until they turn 21.

Blunt took those efforts to show his warm and fuzzy nature to new lengths in his recent State of the State address to a joint session of the Missouri legislature. Blunt, a former Navy officer known for his damn-the-torpedoes approach to public policy, took pains to try to show that he shares the concerns of ordinary people.

Six times during the speech he mentioned traveling the state, visiting with people and talking to them. He spoke of his concern for parents of autistic children and proposed spending $3.9 million to improve early detection of autism disorders.

“I have talked with Missourians,” Blunt said at one point, “and I have listened.”

He said Missourians want confidence that their government is looking out for them. He alluded to widespread criticism over his decision two years ago to cut 90,600 low-income people off Medicaid and to reduce medical benefits for nearly 16,000 poor and disabled.

“Missourians are also very concerned about the sick and the poor,” he said.

And he acknowledged that among Missourians’ chief worries is how they will afford health care. He went on to devote more than 20 percent of his speech to the need to improve health care for the extremely poor people who still qualify for Medicaid and to the 700,000 Missourians who lack health insurance.

Those words of contrition were a major change in tone for Blunt, who has been dogged by low approval ratings for most of his two years in office.

But what do they mean? The autism proposal seemed odd coming from a governor who two years ago proposed eliminating the state’s First Steps program, which helps toddlers overcome developmental problems.

Slipped into the fine print of the speech and the governor’s budget proposal was much of the old dogmatic hyperbole about the virtue of doing things his way.

His budget, for example, makes no changes in Medicaid eligibility rules, which end health coverage for parents when their income exceeds about 24 percent of the federal poverty level. For a single mom with two kids, that’s about $350 a month.

And Blunt gave a passionate defense of his Medicaid cuts, saying the program was bankrupting the state while failing to deliver adequate care. The system let medical providers cheat the system and ineligible recipients qualify for benefits, he said.

“The decisions we made saved Medicaid,” Blunt intoned, “and set us on a course to dramatically improve care for the sick and poor.”

He declared that because of his policies “the days of economic uncertainty are in the past” — even though the state’s revenue growth has slowed dramatically in the last six months and actually fell behind projections at year’s end.

Yet his plan to improve health care went beyond Medicaid recipients to include everyone in the state.

“I promise to deliver improved access to affordable health care for every Missourian and the guarantee that the sick and the poor will be well served,” Blunt said.

But his plan left many observers scratching their heads. Amy Blouin, executive director of the Missouri Budget Project, which evaluates government policies’ effect on the poor, said the plan is so short on details that it is difficult to evaluate. The ideas, she said, are big on buzz words and short on substance.

“There could be some potential in this, but now you can’t see it,” Blouin said. “It seems to be a package of not-totally-thought-out concepts. He seems to be taking ideas that someone liked in another state and trying to apply it here in a different way. So there is no way to know the outcome.”

Among the ideas Blunt is championing are tax credits for employers who provide health benefits and making health insurance tax deductible. He says people without insurance — who tend to be low-income — could form a pool to buy insurance at lower rates.

At such low income levels, however, workers might not be able to afford any insurance premium, Blouin said.

In promising to address the cost of health care for all Missourians, Blunt has set a high standard. It gives him the chance to overcome his reputation as Matt the Medicaid Slasher. But he is taking on an intractable problem that has bedeviled presidents, policymakers, and governors for decades.