House Budget Committee chair questions governor's disaster relief funds

Wednesday, August 24, 2011 | 8:26 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — The House Budget Committee on Wednesday questioned State Budget Director Linda Luebbering about the $150 million withheld by the governor for disaster relief.

Gov. Jay Nixon has set aside the money in anticipation of payments to Joplin and other areas affected by natural disasters without knowing exactly how much money is needed, said committee chairman Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City.

Silvey said Nixon's action was unconstitutional because the state's constitution does not give him power to withhold funds from the budget to use for other purposes.

Article 4, Section 27 of the Missouri Constitution empowers the governor to withhold funds if revenue collections are running below the estimate upon which the budget was based. Silvey said that provision does not empower the governor to cut agency allotments to reserve funds for other purposes the governor wants to finance.

Luebbering said money is needed to cover the expected costs for disaster relief in Joplin and the flooding in southeast Missouri. State obligations could include debris removal or rebuilding schools but as of now there is no breakdown of the specific costs, she said.

"We think setting aside $150 million for all these efforts is a perfectly reasonable amount of money," Luebbering said.

Silvey and other members of the committee questioned why the governor was withholding money from the 2012 fiscal year instead of using the money available in the state's Rainy Day Fund. Created in 2000 as the Budget Reserve Fund, the Rainy Day Fund contains roughly $500 million, half of which can be used for disaster relief payments.

"The Rainy Day Fund is an option," Luebbering said. "I don't know if we will use the Rainy Day Fund."

The constitution requires a two-thirds vote by the General Assembly to use the Rainy Day Fund for emergency relief. In July, Nixon said he would include disaster relief funding as part of the legislature's special session that begins Sept. 6. In the official call issued Aug. 22, however, Nixon left out the issue. A special session can take up only the specific issues included in the governor's call.

Silvey questioned why the governor decided to exclude the legislature from discussing the disaster funding in the special session.

Directly facing Nixon's top budget official, Silvey repeatedly voiced frustration about the administration's approach, saying, "The governor does not want to deal with the legislature."

Luebbering said the governor made the decision to restrict expenditures to allow for more flexibility later in the year. She said the governor's office was looking at the broader constitutionality of the issue and previous court cases that established precedence for the decision to withhold funds.

"The executive branch has the authority to balance the budget," Luebbering said.

Silvey said he did not feel a solution was reached at the meeting but was glad the committee served its purpose in questioning the decision.

"It's clear that the governor does not like dealing with the legislature," Silvey said. "It's clear that he'd rather have flexibility than go along with the constitution."

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, told the committee the issues with the governor's budget is because of the legislature's own action in crafting a budget that left the door open for the governor to use funds for disaster relief without clear legislative authorization. He called on the Budget Committee to close the administrative flexibility in executive spending.

"It is easy to drive a truck through that little flexibility hole without seeing the damage," Kelly said.

Silvey said these issues will likely affect bills in the next legislative session.

The problem isn't where the money is going, but the process that was used to get it there, Silvey said. "We want to see the money going where we appropriated it."

Earlier this month, State Auditor Tom Schweich sent the governor a letter questioning the constitutionality of the governor's budget withholding actions. Schweich charged that Luebbering failed to provide any information substantiating that revenue collections were falling below the original estimates upon which the budget was based.


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