Judge upholds Missouri governors' powers to control state budget

Monday, July 9, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A judge upheld the authority of Missouri governors to control state spending and ruled that a common budgeting tactic violates a state constitutional requirement that says specific amounts and purposes must be given for budget items.

Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem rejected a legal challenge focused on Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon's ability to control the rate of spending and to reduce expenditures when revenue falls short. The ruling, dated last week but issued Friday, came after Republican Auditor Tom Schweich filed a lawsuit last year over some of Nixon's budget decisions.

The Missouri Constitution states: "The governor may control the rate at which any appropriation is expended during the period of the appropriation by allotment or other means, and may reduce the expenditures of the state or any of its agencies below their appropriations whenever the actual revenues are less than the revenue estimates upon which the appropriations were based."

Last June, Nixon announced about $170 million in budget cuts that affected public colleges and universities, student scholarships, the judiciary and early childhood programs, among other things. Nixon said at the time that the cuts were necessary, in part, to help pay for the unexpected costs of the deadly Joplin tornado and major flooding.

Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said Friday that Missouri governors for decades have used their power over spending to guard state finances

"We are pleased that Judge Beetem has once again reinforced that Missouri's constitution gives the governor broad authority to keep our budget balanced and keep our fiscal house in order," Holste said.

Schweich's lawsuit also argued that Nixon wrongly moved funding from certain state programs to disaster relief. The governor was able to increase disaster funding because the budget approved by state lawmakers included an estimated amount for disasters. Spending items that include an "E" mean more money can be spent than what is listed in the budget if funding is available.

Beetem in his ruling concluded the "E" violates a constitutional requirement for each item in the budget to distinctly specify the amount and purpose of the appropriation. He ordered Nixon to direct state officials to disregard the "E" and limit spending to the amount in the budget. However, Beetem stayed the effect of that decision to allow for any appeals.

Schweich said Friday that he agreed with some parts of Beetem's ruling and planned to appeal other aspects.

"We are pleased that Judge Beetem recognized that Gov. Nixon violated the Missouri Constitution by transferring lawfully appropriated funds for higher education, seniors and students to other appropriations," Schweich said.

For the state budget that took effect this month, Missouri lawmakers already had decided to remove hundreds of estimates from individual spending lines while keeping others.

Attorney General Chris Koster, whose office is responsible for defending state laws, said the ruling reinforced the authority of governors to balance state spending. Koster, a Democrat, said he planned to review the court ruling to determine if further action is necessary.

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