State budget fight may spawn lawsuits

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Every twist and turn in the budget showdown between Democratic Gov. Bob Holden and Republican legislative leaders has raised new constitutional questions but few definitive answers.

That recent events have created so much uncertainty isn't surprising. Never in modern Missouri history has the state been this close to a partial government shutdown.

As a result, key sections of the Missouri constitution relevant to the present situation haven't been interpreted by the Supreme Court, leaving the various players to offer plausible -- but often contradictory and ultimately speculative -- opinions of what the document actually says.

With the July 1 start of the new fiscal year a week away, whatever steps the governor and lawmakers take in the coming days have the potential to spawn lawsuits against the state.

After the Republican-controlled legislature sent him a $19 billion state budget he found unacceptable, Holden took the unprecedented step of vetoing four appropriations bills that accounted for two-thirds of total spending.

Lawmakers convened in a special legislative session and last week sent the governor revised spending measures. However, they virtually ignored Holden's request for new taxes.

Temporary spending bills

The governor signed the two updated bills covering mental health, health and social services spending but again vetoed as inadequate the funding for local public schools and higher education institutions.

Holden wants lawmakers to approve temporary spending measures that would maintain education funding through September. He hopes lawmakers will by then be more agreeable to increasing state revenue that would allow them to boost education funding for the remainder of the fiscal year.

Republican leaders say the constitution doesn't allow for short-term appropriations and this week intend to resubmit the two bills as last passed, which combine for nearly $5.6 billion in spending.

However, Holden said they are precluded from doing so because he narrowed the scope of the special session so lawmakers may only consider three-month spending measures.

House Majority Floor Leader Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said the governor can't change the rules in the middle of the game.

"There is no legal authority to my knowledge for the governor to narrow a special session call once issued," Crowell said. "We are operating under the original call."

Crowell said the governor should sign the bills and let the matter drop.

"I hope the governor doesn't force us into court," Crowell said. "Courts do not need to decide these issues."

David Cosgrove, Holden's chief counsel, said that if the governor were to sign those bills now that the special session scope has been limited, a taxpayer would have standing to challenge the action.

With the two sides unwilling to budge, the possibility of the fiscal year beginning without an education budget is real. Because the constitution requires at least 25 percent of state spending to be earmarked for free public schools, the lack of an education budget would raise numerous other legal and constitutional issues.

Looking at 'legal options'

The administration, however, has been unwilling to discuss would happen in that event.

After being repeatedly pressed last week by reporters, Holden would only say that he's "looking at the legal options."

Crowell said he's concerned about what happens next.

"I think he is hellbent on shutting down state government," Crowell said. "It is truly a shame."

In a statement, Holden said it is the legislature that is pushing Missouri to the brink. Although he announced his second round of vetoes last Wednesday, lawmakers aren't reconvening until this Wednesday, which gives them barely enough time to put the bills back on his desk.

"I am extremely disappointed that the legislature would take such an irresponsible course of action and one that prevents reasonable alternatives to protect public and higher education," Holden said.

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