Judge backs governor's power to cut school funds

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The Missouri Constitution doesn't shield public education spending from midyear cuts when the overall state budget is out of balance, a judge ruled Monday.

However, the state Supreme Court will be asked to review the decision and offer a definitive opinion on whether a governor can withhold approved funding for public schools or if he must target other state departments when cuts are necessary.

The Liberty School District and 13 others, mainly from the Kansas City area, sought a court order compelling Gov. Bob Holden to release $190 million in state aid he withheld from all public school systems for the current fiscal year.

Cole County Circuit Court Judge Richard Callahan dismissed the case with prejudice, finding the governor has broad authority to balance the budget.

Liberty superintendent Dr. Scott Taveau said an appeal would be filed within a week. Because constitutional interpretation is involved, the case would go directly to the high court.

"We think we have a very strong case and feel the Supreme Court will agree with our position," Taveau said.

'Nothing to ease the pain'

Holden, a Democrat, praised the decision upholding his constitutional power but said the Republican-led legislature must provide adequate revenue to make future withholdings from education unnecessary.

"While today's court decision resolved an important legal question, it did nothing to ease the pain of local school districts that are suffering from the devastating effects of the legislature's failure to fund education," Holden said.

House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, R-Warson Woods, said it was the governor's decision to withhold from education, not the legislature's. She said actual revenue collections are exceeding projections and called on the governor to release the money.

"This paves the way for Governor Holden to begin reversing the devastating effects of his withholdings," Hanaway said.

While no Southeast Missouri districts are involved in the lawsuit, local school officials have closely watched the case.

Cape Girardeau superintendent Mark Bowles said Callahan's ruling was disappointing but expected.

"We are knee-deep in budget cutting, as are all school districts," Bowles said. "We are proceeding counting on those withholdings being final."

Sikeston superintendent Stephen Borgsmiller said the Supreme Court should settle the issue, which has been debated for years.

"We really need to have the Supreme Court rule on this so it does not come up again," Borgsmiller said.

Two provisions

The dispute centers on the meaning of two constitutional provisions.

One precludes the governor from exercising his line-item veto power on budget bills to reduce spending for public schools or debt repayment below levels set by lawmakers. The next section authorizes him to cut expenditures for any state agency below appropriated amounts in the event of a revenue shortfall.

The districts maintained the first provision restricts the governor's power under the second. Callahan disagreed.

The Supreme Court has never directly interpreted the two sections and sidestepped doing so in a 1992 case led by the Sikeston School District.

The case is State ex rel Liberty School District, et al., v. Gov. Bob Holden and Commissioner of Administration Jacquelyn White.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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