Fiscal realities must be taken into account

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Gov.-elect Jay Nixon is about to get a lesson on campaign promises vs. fiscal realities. Actually, given the state of the national economy, it should come as no surprise that Missouri will soon be forced to tighten her belt a bit. And I strongly suspect that Nixon and his staff saw this on the horizon and have made plans accordingly.

Word comes out this week that Missouri may face a $342 million shortfall because of the stagnant economy. First let me say that I seriously doubt the actual number will be that pessimistic. But there will be a shortfall and that will likely mean cuts in existing programs and a delay in some new programs.

Credit Gov. Matt Blunt to a large extent for keeping a strong fiscal ship in Missouri or the shortfall would be substantially worse. Had Blunt and the legislature not made the tough decision to cut back on Medicaid funding, the shortfall would be astronomical.

Nixon campaigned on a pledge to restore the Medicaid cuts and to offer college funding for any Missouri student attending a community college. Nixon now says his goal remains the same but the funding shortfall may delay the implementation of those changes.

A group of top ranking Republican legislators were in Sikeston this week including House Speaker-elect Ron Richards. They too sounded the warning that money will be tight this year and into the near future. And they clearly said that current levels of funding for programs would likely be reduced.

Despite major cuts, Missouri still remains top heavy in the number of state employees and Medicaid continues to sap one-third of the state budget. Given the current economic times, everyone in state government must take a hard approach to any spending program, regardless of its merits.

Everyone has pet projects and the truth is, many of those projects are important and worthwhile. But when dollars are tight, sometimes you simply have to show restraint and resist throwing dollars around that you don't have.

When Gov. Blunt took office he inherited a billion dollar deficit from former Gov. Bob Holden. And that was during strong economic times! So credit Blunt with keeping a close watch on the finances of the state and credit the legislature with resisting the call to spend money that wasn't there.

Despite this deficit news, Missouri remains in a good financial position compared with countless other states. And I believe Jay Nixon is a smart and pragmatic politician who will fight the urge to expand programs without the available funds. Should he give in to that urge, he'll face difficulty from a Republican-led legislature and he knows it.

Maybe something good will come from this economic mess. Maybe government at all levels will be forced to live within their means. Now wouldn't that be a change?!

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