JEFFERSON CITY - Rep. Carl Bearden may help hold the reins of Missouri's $19 billion budget, but just four years ago he was fielding calls about barking dogs and broken streetlights.
Term limits and the Republican's first majority in the Missouri House in a generation helped sweep Bearden, a former St. Charles County commissioner beginning his third year as a representative, to one of the most powerful positions in state government: chairman of the House Budget Committee. From that position, he is in a position to have more influence over the shape of the state's budget than any other person except the governor.
Bearden, a former fund-raising consultant, faces the two biggest budget challenges that have faced the state in decades: Missouri's looming budget shortfalls of $350 million in the remaining four months of this fiscal year that ends June 30, and a projected $1 billion shortfall for the next fiscal year.
For a person with so much power over an area of such grand political and governmental ramifications, Bearden is a remarkably soft-spoken and patient legislator.
When he meets with lobbyists and constituents, he leans forward to listen. When he responds, he's careful to call them by name and look them in the eye. His easy-going, "aw shucks" manner allows him to tell people "no" without leaving a bad taste in their mouth.
That quality will be tested hundreds if not thousands of times in the next few months as the legislature wrestles with how to reconcile Missouri's flagging revenues with spending promises made during the go-go days of the bubble economy. With cuts in the air, beneficiaries of state aid have been filling the waiting room in Bearden's office for a chance to meet with the man who'll be guiding Missouri's budget ax.
On one recent day Bearden met with a dance troupe from Kansas City about money for the arts, Randolph county commissioners concerned about lost funding for a social worker, and lobbyists representing interests as diverse as the Kansas City Chiefs and the insurance industry.
But Bearden can be stern. When a freshman legislator botched the handling of a bill Bearden wanted passed out of a committee, he didn't hesitate to shift responsibility for the bill to another representative.
He's also a details man who's comfortable discussing even small provisions of the state's budget that consumes hundreds of pages. When House Speaker Catherine Hanaway meets the press to discuss the budget, Bearden sits next to her to field technical questions.
A Budget Hawk
Bearden is a conservative, both fiscally and morally. Given the choice to identify with John Ashcroft or John McCain, he chooses Ashcroft without hesitation. He also says any agency receiving state funding should not discuss abortion.
But Bearden's legislative focus is on fiscal issues. He says his top priority is to change the way the state spends its money.
"We need to change the way that we budget," he says. "We spend all available monies based on a revenue estimate. I think there's a better way and if we had been doing it differently all along we wouldn't be in the mess we are now because our spending would have been restrained."
In the meantime, Bearden and other legislators must play with the budget hand they've been dealt. As a county commissioner, Bearden says he is most proud of helping stop St. Charles County government from borrowing money to balance its budget.
But as Budget Committee chairman, Bearden was at the center of the debate with the governor about how much money to borrow to spend on the last five months of this year's budget and how much to stash for next year. Ultimately, Bearden backed a plan to give the governor $150 million in borrowed money to fill a revenue hole in this fiscal year's budget and up to $300 million in borrowed money for next year.
Under the plan he voted for, a kindergartner today will be 43 years old by the time the state retires the debt issued to help balance this year and next year's budget.
Bearden says the magnitude of the state's budget problems forced him to reconsider his stance on borrowing, but it's not something he generally favors.
"We're all going to have to hold our nose if this [the plan to issue bonds] goes through," he says.
From across the aisle, several House Democrats have spoken warmly of Bearden, despite the fact that they will soon be doing battle with him on policy issues. Rep. Denny Merideth, D-Caruthersville, and Rep. Barbara Fraser, D-St. Louis County, have both praised him for being open to ideas from Democrats as well as Republicans.
"My observation is that he's a very fair person," Fraser said. "I have great respect for him. I've seen in just a few good examples that he's listened to several sides."
But Rep. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, said that while he respects Bearden as a person, he disagrees with some aspects of how he's handling the budget process.
"There have been some troubling starts to this year," Graham said. "He's the first budget chairman in probably 30 years not to provide a consensus revenue estimate. And I don't know how you start the budgeting process if you don't know what your numbers are."
But Bearden responds that he objects to how the state budget office goes about projecting how much money the state will take in, but that he's willing to use the numbers they supply to the governor as a starting point for budget planning.
Rep. Marsha Campbell, D-Jackson County the ranking Democrat on the budget committee, agrees with many members of her party in saying the jury is still out on Bearden's effectiveness as a leader.
"I think it's too early to talk about that yet," Campbell said. "The tough decisions lie ahead."
On his desk, Bearden keeps a sign which reads "What is popular is not always right, what is right is not always popular."
The depth of Bearden's convictions will be tested in the coming months, as the cuts in state government he's planning are certain to draw fire.
As last fiscal year's budget was solved in part by deep cuts to the state's colleges, Bearden says this year it's health care for the poor that will have to face the budget knife. Missouri's Medicaid program exceeds what the federal government requires, Bearden says, and the state can no longer afford it.
"It's government's job to take care of our neediest citizens," Bearden says. "We can't touch health care for the very poorest, but we do need to maybe change who qualifies for certain assistance because we just can't pay for the levels we're at."
Should Hanaway run for statewide office in 2004 and Republicans retain control of the House, Bearden doesn't hide the fact that he'd consider stepping forward to take her place as speaker.
"I'm hard pressed to say what I don't like [about politics]," Bearden says. "I like it a lot."
But Bearden's opportunity to run for speaker will depend on whether the Republicans keep control of the House. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle predict the outcome of Missouri's current budget and tax debate will be a major factor in that decision.