JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Attorneys presented the Missouri Supreme Court with dueling constitutional provisions Wednesday in a case that challenges the governor's power to withhold money earmarked for public education.
Fourteen school systems are asking the court to declare state appropriations for elementary and secondary education off limits when the governor needs to find midyear savings to keep the overall budget in balance.
Just as arguments began, Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr. asked if there was still an issue to decide given Gov. Bob Holden's action on Tuesday to release $75 million of the nearly $200 million he withheld from schools in July.
Michael Delaney, the attorney for the districts, said a significant amount of money remains in dispute.
Only a few districts, primarily from the Kansas City area, are parties to the case. However, if they prevail, it would mean increased funding for all of Missouri's 524 public school systems during the current fiscal year.
The court, which was sitting with just six judges due to the recusal of Chief Justice Ronnie L. White, will issue an opinion at a later date.
During arguments last month before Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan, Delaney focused on two constitutional provisions related to budgeting.
One precludes the governor from using his line-item veto on appropriations bills to reduce spending for public schools or debt repayment below levels set by lawmakers. The next section authorizes the governor to cut expenditures of any state agency below appropriated amounts when there is a revenue shortfall.
Delaney claimed the former provision imposed a limitation on the governor's power under the latter, protecting education from cuts. Assistant attorney general Paul Wilson, representing the state, noted the plain language of the second section includes no exemptions.
Callahan sided with the state and dismissed the case, prompting the districts to appeal.
Before the high court, Delaney shifted his focus to a provision in the education article of the constitution that says all appropriations for public schools shall be paid at least annually.
Just as Wilson argued the constitution means what it says when it allows the governor to cut spending for "any" state agency, Delaney contended the mandate that "all" public school appropriations be paid is equally clear.
Wilson countered that Delaney ignored the original intent of the provision on which the districts based their case. That section dates to Missouri's 1875 constitution and a time when the legislature met only every other year and drafted biennial budgets.
"It wasn't obvious at that time that schools would get money every year," Wilson said. "In fact, there was a fear they would only get money every 24 months."
The court took the case under advisement but did not indicate when it would rule.
The case is State ex rel Liberty School District, et al., v. Gov. Bob Holden and Commissioner of Administration Jacquelyn White.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.