Lawmaker upset about Nixon’s staff shifts

Governor accused of ‘hiding’ staff to ease his office budget

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has transferred several staff members responsible for gubernatorial appointments to a separate state agency — a move that has freed up money for his own office and led a top lawmaker to accuse him of flaunting budgetary restrictions intended to halt such cost-shifting.

State Rep. Ryan Silvey, who heads a special House committee on budget transparency, engaged in a heated exchange Wednesday with Nixon's budget director about whether the staff changes were appropriate. Silvey accused Nixon's administration of "hiding" the employees in a blatant violation of a new budgetary provision barring agencies from paying for the governor's staff.

Nixon's budget director, Linda Luebbering, defended the employee transfers as both a legal and efficient use of state resources.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike have expressed frustration over Nixon's past practice of billing departments for his state airplane trips and the salaries of some aides. As a result, they inserted wording into budget bills that took effect July 1 specifically prohibiting most departments from paying for the staff or travel costs of the governor or Missouri's five other elected statewide officials.

As the new budget was about to take effect, the Democratic governor transferred three employees responsible for handling applications for state boards and commissions from the governor's office to the Department of Insurance, Financial Institutions and Professional Registration. Despite the change, their essential duties remain the same — to screen and recommend people for Nixon to appoint to state positions.

The three employees — board and commissions director Deborah Price, deputy director Damion Trasada and administrative assistant Kim Gerlt — earn a combined $184,000 annually, said Nixon spokesman Scott Holste. Their transfers were effective June 16, he said. On July 26, Nixon announced he was hiring former Missouri State University President Mike Nietzel as a senior policy adviser in the governor's office at an annual salary of $100,000

Silvey said the staff members responsible for appointments still are clearly working for the governor and their transfers are merely a way for Nixon to free up money to pay Nietzel.

"What we're seeing year after year is King Jay, who will do everything he can to consolidate as much power and make unilateral decisions as possible," Silvey told The Associated Press.

Luebbering and Holste both defended the staff transfers, noting the Division of Professional Registration is the umbrella agency for numerous state boards. Luebbering said other departments that house boards and commissions also are helping pay the employees' salaries.

"It is an appropriate alignment of costs with funding streams," Holste said in a statement to the AP. "These staff focus on appointments to boards and commissions, and the DIFP is the agency with the most boards and commissions."

The official state manual lists about 40 boards, committees and commissions under the department. The governor's website lists more than 200 boards and commissions statewide for which he has a role in making appointments.

Asked if the transfers freed up money to hire Nietzel, Holste did not directly answer but instead said "the governor has a good deal of flexibility within the appropriation to staff and operate his office."

Silvey said he was frustrated the governor appeared to ignore the budget restriction on shifting costs to agencies, but he said he didn't know what lawmakers could do about it.

"No matter what we do, he's going to figure out another way to change it," Silvey said.

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