Nixon: Vetoes aimed at new programs

Gov. Jay Nixon speaks during a news conference held at the Capitol on Tuesday, June 24, 2014, in Jefferson City, Mo.

Gov. Jay Nixon speaks during a news conference held at the Capitol on Tuesday, June 24, 2014, in Jefferson City, Mo. AP Photo/The Jefferson City News-Tribune, Julie Smith

In just 66 days, Missouri lawmakers will return to Jefferson City for their veto session, the time when lawmakers can try to reject a governor’s rejection of bills they passed in the spring and put those proposals into the lawbooks despite the governor’s objections.

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon already has given lawmakers some vetoes to consider, and he has one more week to finish acting on all the measures the Republican-led Legislature passed earlier this year.

Key among those are nearly a dozen measures GOP lawmakers and leaders already are urging colleagues to override on Sept. 10.

Those bills provide a variety of mostly sales tax breaks or exemptions that the governor recently rejected as “blowing a hole” in the budget that lawmakers already had passed.

The state’s new budget year began last Tuesday, and nearly two weeks ago, Nixon vetoed or withheld more than $1.1 billion in spending that lawmakers had approved, saying the state government can’t afford to spend all of the money if the sales tax bills also go into effect and cut the state’s tax income.

Nixon noted, in a meeting with the News Tribune’s editorial board, that withholdings can be a little easier than vetoes because, if the state’s revenue picture improves, that money can be released to be spent.

Deciding what to veto and what to withhold isn’t easy, he explained, but he decided to start with new programs.

“The overarching theory — government’s going to get smaller,” Nixon said. “It’s gotten 4,800 people smaller since I’ve been governor. That’s going to continue, especially when you’re dealing with a legislative branch that, this year alone, did $1.3 billion worth of tax cuts.”

He acknowledged those cuts kick in at different times, but — if they all are passed as law — they still will reduce the amount of money that state government can count on to operate.

“And, in that sense, sending out a false signal that you think the physical plant of state government is going to get bigger” just didn’t seem like the best message, the governor said. “There were good projects in there.

“I’m not saying I didn’t like them. I’m not saying they weren’t good policy. But you’ve got to have the money. If you don’t have the money, you’ve got to make the choices.”

The governor agreed that he and lawmakers will disagree with the specifics of bills they pass or the actions he takes.

But the state Constitution gives the governor the final say in controlling the way money passes through the state treasury and is spent.

“My mentality was, folks don’t want government bigger, and that includes the physical plant,” Nixon said. “So, it’s not getting bigger. It’s not a contention thing. It’s the reality.”

He also explained, not expanding the state’s physical plant meant canceling state government’s support for a project the governor championed and helped announce only last January — taking over the current St. Mary’s Health Center complex and letting Lincoln University and Linn Tech (now the State Technical College of Missouri) use part of it for medical-related education programs.

“I like St. Mary’s,” he said. “But, broadening the footprint of Linn Tech and Lincoln, in an older building that’s going to take tens of millions of dollars to actually get up and usable,” when you have lawmakers passing bills that his administration estimates will cut more than $1 billion in future state revenues, didn’t seem like the prudent choice.

Also among Nixon’s vetoes was a $300,000 appropriation for the Legislature’s Joint Interim Committee on State Employee Wages to hire a consultant to make a full-blown, total compensation study of Missouri’s state government workers compared with their counterparts in other states and in the private sector.

That committee is chaired by state Rep. Mike Bernskoetter and includes Rep. Jay Barnes and Sen. Mike Kehoe, all Jefferson City Republicans.

The panel determined several years ago that Missouri government workers’ paychecks are last-in-the-nation — but the total compensation picture isn’t as clear.

“We know they’re not being paid enough. … We don’t need to do another study that says where we really are,” Nixon said.

The governor’s budget actions included more than $600 million in withholdings, including more than $180 million held back from the budgets of public elementary, secondary and higher education schools.

Within hours of the governor’s June 24 budget announcement, legislative leaders complained he had withheld money from education that he should have approved for spending — and his decisions were the wrong ones for Missouri to make progress.

For instance, House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said: “This is a governor who tells the public he wants to invest in our young people, but then is all too willing to make school funding his first target and show that public education is his lowest priority when he does not get his way.

“In this case he is withholding public education funding as leverage to stifle the legislature’s efforts to create jobs, reduce taxes and rein in his administration’s constant attempts to over-tax Missourians and Missouri businesses.”

Nixon agreed he wants lawmakers in September to uphold his vetoes of the sales tax changes.

The governor noted that a combination of things including the lawmaker-approved spending plan, the various tax cuts and exemptions they also approved and some revenue-enhancing measures they didn’t approve — like tax amnesty and expansion of the Medicaid program — left a budget “about $800 million out-of-balance.”

While he didn’t dwell on the details, Nixon and others have noted in the past that the way the state’s budget is designed, the chief executive has the most leeway in controlling general revenue funds — and those mainly pay for education, social service programs and mental health.

“I’ve said we need to fund K-12 and higher education,” Nixon said, calling those withholds a difficult choice “because the best economic development tool we’ve got is education. And we’ve got to continue to be aggressive there.

“Very aggressive.”

Still, he explained: “The reason that I restricted K-12 and higher ed is so that it would be the first ones out if they sustain the vetoes. I wanted to send that clear signal that that was a priority — not to play games, but to be reality, to set a clear, kind of bread crumbs to the front door of what I was thinking so that everybody would see that.”

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