By DAVID A. LIEB
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - The power of Missouri governors to make budget cuts could come down to a judge's interpretation of the power of a comma.
In court arguments Monday, attorneys for Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon argued that a well-placed comma in the Missouri Constitution gives governors the authority to make budget cuts regardless of whether revenues are running short or ahead of projections. An attorney for Republican Auditor Tom Schweich dissected the sentence differently, diminishing the effect of the comma and arguing that Nixon has "misconstrued and misused" his gubernatorial powers.
Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem issued no immediate ruling on the case.
At issue is about $170 million of budget cuts announced in June by Nixon for the 2012 fiscal year that began July 1. The cuts affected public colleges and universities, student scholarships, the judiciary and early childhood programs, among other things. Nixon said they were necessary, in part, to help pay for the unexpected costs of the deadly Joplin tornado and major flooding.
Schweich's lawsuit against Nixon centers on a section of the Missouri Constitution that states, "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 estimates upon which the appropriations were based."
There is no dispute that the second half of the sentence gives governors authority to make budget cuts when revenues fall below projections. But Missouri's revenues generally are on track with projections this fiscal year. Nixon's legal team contends this year's budget cuts were made under a separate power granted by the first half of the sentence to control the rate of expenditures - regardless of the status of state revenues.
Former Supreme Court Judge Edward "Chip" Robertson, who is representing Nixon, displayed a large poster of the constitutional section in the courtroom and quoted from a guidebook on proper grammar and punctuation. The comma in front of the word "and" means the sentence contains two separate clauses - thus two separate powers for the governor, he said.
Robertson said the June announcement was merely a temporary restriction on spending, authorized under the first half of the sentence, which could be made permanent later in the year if actual revenues fall short.
"What's at stake here is the ability for the governor to make sure our budget is balanced within the appropriations provided by the General Assembly," Robertson said.
Former Greene County Prosecutor Darrell Moore, who now works for Schweich, also cited the grammar guidebook while arguing that the word "and" implies there is a relation between the two halves of the sentence. Moore argued that Nixon was not merely controlling the rate of expenditures with his June announcement but had intended to permanently reduce them - a move that ran afoul of the constitution because revenues had not fallen short.
Moore noted that documents released in June by Nixon's administration did not use the word temporary in front of a list of budget cuts. He also cited a July memo by Nixon's budget director, Linda Luebbering, directing state agencies to submit proposed 2013 budget requests "that make permanent their June expenditure restriction amounts." Moore dismissed Nixon's contention that the June cuts were only temporary until a determination could be made later about whether revenues would fall short.
"He engages in this gimmick that, I submit, no other governor ever has done," Moore said.
Schweich's lawsuit also contends Nixon violated his constitutional authority by shifting money away from education and other programs to pay for disaster relief. Nixon said the shift was justified because the budget line for disaster relief contains an "e" next to the dollar amount - indicating it is an estimate that can be expanded to unlimited amounts to cover needs.