Our Opinion: A tangle in the branches of government

"You say you’ll change the constitution/Well, you know.”

“Revolution” lyrics by

John Lennon and Paul McCartney

Changing the constitution in Missouri is hardly a revolutionary activity.

But change must be prudent, particularly when it involves re-configuring the separation of powers among government’s three branches — executive, legislative and judicial.

Pruning some of the chief executive’s constitutional budget authority is the topic of a legislative proposal being crafted by state Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff. Lawmakers will gather at the Capitol to begin their regular session Wednesday.

Richardson’s proposal is a response to budget withholdings orchestrated last year by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. Richardson said his aim is to preserve the governor’s budget balancing authority, but deter the chief executive from riding roughshod over legislative spending decisions.

At issue is a provision of the Missouri Constitution that says the governor “may control the rate at which any appropriation is expended during the period of the appropriation by allotment or other means, and may reduce the expenditures of the state or any of its agencies below their appropriations whenever the actual revenues are less than the revenue estimated upon which the appropriations were based.”

Republicans are miffed by what they consider Nixon’s overly broad interpretation of the provision. Members of the GOP contend Nixon stretched — or, at least, politicized — his budget authority when he froze specific legislative spending to leverage a veto. The governor ultimately prevailed when an effort to override his veto of a Republican tax cut bill failed.

Nixon argues the budget authority traditionally has been used by both Democratic and Republican governors to meet their constitutional obligation to balance the state budget, as well as to practice fiscal responsibility and preserve the state’s AAA credit rating.

Perhaps the best arbiter of this constitutional dispute between the executive and legislative branches is the third branch: the judiciary.

State Auditor Tom Schweich’s 2011 lawsuit on the issue was turned away in October by the Missouri Supreme Court, which deemed the plaintiff did not have standing to pose the challenge, and that his challenge was premature.

Before an attempt is made to amendment the constitution, we’d like to see a judicial ruling outlining what the language does and does not permit.

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