Missouri auditor sues governor over budget cuts

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri's Republican state auditor sued its Democratic governor on Friday, alleging that the governor violated the state constitution by cutting spending on education and other services to help cover the costs of the deadly Joplin tornado and spring flooding.

The lawsuit filed in Cole County Circuit Court by Auditor Tom Schweich contends that Gov. Jay Nixon had no accounting data to justify the spending cuts were necessary, wrongly made them before the budget took effect and did so in a politically biased way that penalized Republican officials more than Democratic ones.

Nixon administration officials responded by defending the cuts, without specifically addressing the points raised in the lawsuit.

"The governor has used his constitutional authority to fulfill his responsibility to reduce spending to balance the budget, a power used by governors over the years and consistently upheld by the courts," Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said in an emailed statement. "Gov. Nixon will continue to ensure that Missouri will meet its obligations to help communities recover and rebuild from these disasters."

Schweich said he sued because Nixon's office has refused to work with the Republican-led Legislature and the auditor's office to reverse the cuts or provide the necessary documentation to justify them.

"There is no dispute that the victims of the tornadoes and floods must be fully compensated for their tragic losses. But the process must be legal and transparent," Schweich said in the written statement announcing the lawsuit had been filed.

The Missouri Constitution gives governors the authority to withhold money budgeted for state agencies when actual revenues fall below the estimates upon which the budget was based. Nixon said he was exercising that power in June when he announced $172 million in cuts to public colleges and universities, student scholarships, busing for elementary and secondary schools and various other programs for the 2012 fiscal year that began July 1.

Nixon cited Missouri's disaster response and recovery costs as part of the reason for the spending cuts. He has set aside $150 million — partially from cuts and partially from excess revenues — to pay for efforts related to the deadly May 22 tornado that hit Joplin, flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and tornadoes that hit other parts of the state.

Schweich's lawsuit contends that Nixon had no legal authority to make the cuts in June before revenues for the 2012 fiscal year began to arrive. The suit also contends that Nixon had no constitutional power to reallocate money that was cut to other purposes. Nixon's administration has defended that move by noting that the budgeted amount for disaster aid included an estimate, which essentially allows the governor to spend as much as necessary.

The lawsuit also claims Nixon's cuts were "arbitrary and capricious" because he lacked justifying data and because he reduced spending for the Republican-led Legislature and Schweich's office but not for his own office or those of other Democratic statewide officeholders. The $300,000 Nixon cut from auditor's office budget had been intended to fund a comparative audit of state agencies, but the Legislature failed to pass the separate, necessary legislation specifically authorizing the audit.

During a House committee hearing earlier this week, Nixon's budget director, Linda Luebbering, defended cuts to the Legislature's budget by saying they were proportional to reductions that lawmakers made to the governor's core budget. The governor's budget actually rose for 2012, but only because lawmakers added $200,000 intended to cover his travel costs after inserting wording barring him from continuing to bill agencies for his state airplane flights.

In July, top Republican lawmakers asked Attorney General Chris Koster to issue an official opinion on Nixon's budget actions — specifically, whether he can withhold money from agencies to fund increased expenses from mid-year disasters, whether he can withhold money in excess of the gap between actual and projected revenues, and whether he can withhold money from agencies to fund other budget items that had been designated as estimates.

Koster spokeswoman Nanci Gonder told The Associated Press on Thursday that the office was reviewing the request and would provide lawmakers a response.

But Gonder did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday about the lawsuit. Typically, the attorney general's office represents state officials who file lawsuits or get sued. It was not clear Friday whether Koster's office would take a role in the dispute between the auditor and governor.

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