Senate panel argues over governor's authority to shift money

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- With hundreds of spending decisions pending, the Senate appropriations panel Tuesday tangled with a philosophical debate over the separation of government powers.

At stake is whether a governor has the authority to take money from other parts of the budget to fund a program that lawmakers have decided not to fund.

In the spending plan for the current year, lawmakers eliminated $130,000 for the operation of a state office in Washington, D.C., that is intended to monitor federal issues of importance to Missouri.

Gov. Bob Holden's administration, however, shuffled money from other departments to fund the Washington office, a move that ensured its continued operation but sparked the ire of lawmakers.

Last week, the Missouri House passed an $18.6 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, and this week the Senate appropriations panel began wrestling with the plan.

But Tuesday morning, a lengthy debate erupted over the Washington office as state Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, pushed for an amendment that would limit certain funding shifts by the governor without the consent of the legislature.

Eventually, his amendment was adopted by the committee on a 6-5 vote. The measure must now be approved by the full Senate and could then be a point of contention when House and Senate negotiators meet to discuss their differences.

"The question here is that over time, through custom, practice and some court decisions, the authority of the General Assembly to appropriate has been eroded," Nodler told the panel.

Other senators, though, said adding language to prevent gubernatorial budget shuffling could have unintended consequences.

State Sen. Patrick Dougherty, D-St. Louis, said department directors in the past have sometimes shifted money with the approval of legislative leaders to deal with unforeseen events.

Longtime budget guru Sen. Wayne Goode, a St. Louis Democrat, questioned whether the language would spark a lawsuit and said the committee "ought to leave well enough alone."

The committee debated the separation-of-powers issue at length, to the consternation of the appropriations panel chairman, John Russell, who complained that the discussion was taking too much time.

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