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Missouri auditor questions budget cuts by Nixon

Missouri auditor questions budget cuts by Nixon

August 20th, 2011 by CHRIS BLANK, Associated Press in News

The Missouri auditor's office questioned Friday whether Gov. Jay Nixon exceeded his authority when making budget cuts that he has said were necessary in part to pay for disaster recovery.

Auditor Tom Schweich, a Republican, said in a letter sent to Nixon, a Democrat, there is nothing in the Missouri Constitution that allows governors to trim the budget approved by the Legislature to pay for expenses that had not been anticipated.

Schweich said swift action has been necessary to respond to the recent spate of natural disasters but the process Nixon used did not seem to comply with the constitution.

"Your actions are troubling because the legislative branch of government was not provided appropriate checks and balances, and could result in the governor basically rewriting the budget without recourse by the General Assembly," Schweich said.

Nixon in June cut $172 million, which included $57 million in state general revenues from the budget that took effect July 1 to help offset the cost for disaster recovery. The cuts included reductions in aid to colleges and universities, student scholarships and busing for public elementary and secondary schools. Earlier this month, Nixon released $1.2 million for domestic violence shelters, crisis care services for children and Area Agencies on Aging.

The governor has pledged $150 million to help with the response to flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and to the deadly tornado in Joplin and other twisters in St. Louis and Sedalia.

Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said Schweich's letter is wrong and governors have the constitutional responsibility and authority to make cuts to balance the budget.

"Gov. Nixon will continue to ensure that Missouri will meet its obligations to help communities recover and rebuild in the wake of the many natural disasters this year, including the devastating tornado that hit Joplin," Holste said. "The governor will continue to fulfill his responsibility to balance the state budget, fund necessary services and help our communities recover from these disasters."

The Missouri Constitution allows governors to cut spending when state revenues fall short of the estimates upon which the state budget was based.

Other Republican officials also have questioned how Nixon has trimmed the budget. Earlier this week, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, questioned the governor's budget director during a hearing focused on financing for disaster recovery.

In his letter Friday, Schweich recommended that Nixon's office work with the Legislature to clarify whether governors can make budget cuts to pay for expenses from emergencies that had not been anticipated. He also suggested establishing clearly defined criteria for deciding when to withhold money that has been appropriated and when those funds could be released.