State representative seeks shield for school spending

Tuesday, January 4, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A freshman lawmaker from Southeast Missouri is proposing a change to the state constitution that would prevent future governors from reducing approved education spending as a way to keep the overall state budget in balance.

State representative-elect Nathan Cooper, R-Cape Girardeau, prefiled the proposed constitutional amendment for consideration in the legislative session that begins Wednesday. Cooper said education funds should be off-limits for midyear cuts.

"When the legislature appropriates money for education, and there is a shortfall later on, it is my belief the money should come from elsewhere in the budget," Cooper said.

Currently, a governor may reduce spending for any state agency below levels set by the legislature if revenue collections are expected to be insufficient to cover appropriations.

Departing Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, withheld a portion of the funds set aside for local public schools during the 2003 and 2004 fiscal years as a way to keep the budget in the black. Although he eventually reinstated the funds for fiscal year 2004 once he was convinced the revenue was available, schools had to absorb a funding hit in fiscal year 2003.

The first plank in the Missouri Republican Party platform approved last summer calls for an "immediate end to the policy of withholding appropriated funds from public schools." The party, however, stopped short of proposing a constitutional prohibition on public education withholdings.

Likewise, governor-elect Matt Blunt, a Republican, has vowed never to exercise the chief executive's constitutional authority to reduce education expenditures below appropriated levels but hasn't called for a change in the state charter.

At the time he made the withholdings, Holden said the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was one of the few areas of the budget he realistically could tab for savings because it receives a large share of discretionary general revenue. For the current fiscal year, appropriations for DESE account for 36 percent of the state's $7.13 billion general revenue budget.

In 2003, 14 Missouri school districts, mainly from the Kansas City area, sued Holden in an attempt to overturn his budget withholdings. The districts, led by the Liberty School District, claimed the Missouri Constitution shielded public school spending from midyear cuts. A unanimous Supreme Court disagreed.

Dr. Scott Taveau, the Liberty schools superintendent, endorses Cooper's attempt to achieve through constitutional amendment what the district failed to win in court.

"That's what we thought was in the constitution to begin with," Taveau said. "It is less of a point now because we have a new governor who said he will take drastic actions to protect education, but 20 years from now who knows?"

If the proposed amendment clears the legislature, it would have to be ratified by Missouri voters.

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