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Legislature considering amendment to limit governor’s withholding powers

For several years, Missouri Republican lawmakers have complained about the way Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon has handled the state’s budget.

They got more upset last year, when Nixon held back over $400 million that lawmakers had approved, and the governor had signed into law — then said the withholding was needed because, if lawmakers overrode his veto of a tax-cut plan, the state would lose even more money and his withholding was just a “down-payment” on that need.

Lawmakers didn’t override that veto, and Nixon — a piece at a time — released the withholdings so the money could be spent.

But now lawmakers want Missouri voters to approve a constitutional amendment changing the way the governor withholds money, once the budget is signed.

“House Joint Resolution 72 is my effort, the House’s effort, to try to address what I think is a growing problem with the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches,” state Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, told the Senate’s Rules Committee last week.

The House passed the resolution on Feb. 20 by a 109-42 margin. If the Senate agrees, the proposal would go on the Nov. 4 general election ballot.

As a proposed constitutional amendment, the governor has no power to sign or veto it.

But he doesn’t like it.

“For decades, the robust fiscal management authority enshrined in our Constitution, including a Governor’s authority to limit excessive spending, has played a critical role in maintaining Missouri’s status as one of the few states in the nation with a spotless AAA credit rating,” Nixon spokeswoman Channing Ansley told the News Tribune.

“The Governor has made clear that by undermining this strong framework, measures such as HJR 72 would jeopardize Missouri’s long-standing AAA credit rating and weaken our economy.”

The Constitution requires the governor to propose a budget within 30 days of the start of each legislative session.

The Legislature then writes the budget — and is free to use the governor’s ideas as a starting point, or to scrap his proposal and write their own plan.

Once both houses agree, the budget is sent to the governor — who, at that point, can accept or veto what lawmakers have written, but cannot add to it.

If he vetoes a budget item, the Constitution says lawmakers can try to override the veto, with a two-thirds majority (109 votes in the House, 23 in the Senate) needed.

Unless lawmakers override the governor’s veto, that line of spending is gone for the year.

But the Constitution also lets the governor withhold — that is, keep the money and not spend it — “whenever the actual revenues are less than the revenue estimates upon which the appropriations were based.”

And that’s what Richardson’s amendment would change because, some lawmakers argue, Nixon has held on to some money without spending it, even when the state’s actual income was higher than legislative leaders and the governor estimated it would be.

“First, the resolution specifies that the governor cannot withhold funds for public debt,” Richardson said last week. “That’s a provision that does not exist in the Constitution now.”

Paying on the state’s debts is the Constitution’s first requirement for the budget.

Then, Richardson said, his proposal “requires the governor to notify the General Assembly, by proclamation, of a withhold or a rate-of-expenditure decision. And it gives the Legislature the ability to, essentially, override that decision in the same way we would a veto.”

State Auditor Tom Schweich took Nixon to court in 2011, accusing the governor of violating the Constitution because of withholds the governor made when signing the 2011-12 state budget less than a month after a major tornado killed 161 people and caused widespread devastation in the middle of Joplin, on May 22, 2011.

The state Supreme Court last year declined to rule in the case, saying Schweich had filed prematurely.

Schweich’s general counsel, Darrell Moore, testified in favor of putting the proposed amendment on the ballot.

“The auditor supports this because (he) believes the intent of the Constitution was circumvented in 2011, and the proposed amendment takes away some of the ambiguity,” Moore told the senators. “The reality is, if you look at it, the fiscal year 2012 budget ended up being $44 million over what you all appropriated.

“There was no shortfall. At no time was there a shortfall.”

Both Moore and Richardson said the proposed amendment still allows the governor to manage the cash flow in order to pay the state’s bills — it just gives the Legislature more authority to get the administration to follow the budget as the lawmakers wrote it.

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