JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri's proposed budget suddenly looks $1 billion bigger, thanks to hundreds of additions by the House Budget Committee.
At a time when officials are pitting cuts to public colleges against aid to the blind, a billion-dollar bump to the budget may seem to contradict the hullabaloo about the state's tight finances. But what it really reveals is a struggle between Missouri's legislators and governor for the power of the purse.
Republicans and Democrats on the budget committee have attempted to assert more control over the thousands of specific appropriations listed in Missouri's proposed budget for the 2013 fiscal year, which starts July 1. That comes after some lawmakers expressed belief that Gov. Jay Nixon made rather generous use of his budgetary powers as Missouri was pummeled by floods and tornadoes last year.
At issue are two budgeting procedures that have become relatively common in Missouri.
The first involves the placement of an "E'' next to particular line items in the budget. The "E'' makes the amount an estimate, meaning more can be spent if more money is available. Lawmakers, for example, might allot $100,000E to a certain program. Without the "E," in this example, $100,000 would be the maximum that could be spent.
The second budgeting procedure at issue is the governor's constitutional authority to control the rate of budget expenditures. Nixon has cited this power to withhold some of the money appropriated to particular programs — it allows him to spend less than the amount budgeted for a program. Sometimes, Nixon has combined this power with the flexibility granted him by the budgetary "E."
In 2011, Nixon pledged to provide up to $150 million of state aid following floods and the Joplin tornado by citing the budgetary flexibility in an appropriation of $999,999E for the State Emergency Management Agency. Partly because of his pledge to provide disaster expenses, Nixon cited his power to control the rate of expenses in June while also announcing about $170 million in spending cuts to other state programs.
Nixon said his actions were necessary to keep a balanced budget while responding to emergencies.
But some lawmakers perceived it as an executive branch power grab of the legislature's budgetary authority. That frustration has manifested itself in a budget plan that will be debated by the full House after lawmakers return Monday from their annual spring break.
The House Budget Committee's plan eliminated 444 of the 695 "E'' designations that had been included in Nixon's budget — often substituting the estimates with higher dollar amounts that they believe more closely resemble that actual amount of money being spent by particular programs.
In some cases, the committee chose higher amounts than the expected expenses, so programs won't be placed in jeopardy by hitting an arbitrary spending ceiling. Most of the abolished "E'' designations were for budgetary lines that listed federal funds or other sources of income besides state general revenues.
The result is a $24 billion House budget plan that is $1 billion larger than what Nixon had proposed in January. Nixon's budget director is fine with the change.
Further limiting the governor's ability to shift money, the House budget plan allots just 75 percent of the additional Medicaid money requested to cover an increased use of some Department of Mental Health services. It also allots 75 percent of the amount needed to offset a decline in the federal matching rate for Missouri's Medicaid services in the departments of social services and health.
Under the House plan, the remaining 25 percent — about $12 million — could be provided halfway through the fiscal year with a separate budget bill, which likely would be considered in 2013.
The intent is "to regain some measure of control over the appropriations process, which is what the constitution says we should do," said House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City.
But the Department of Mental Health says the budget would further delay Medicaid services to about 350 developmentally disabled residents on a state waiting list. Contrary to the legislative plan, the department said it cannot start providing services on the assumption the legislature will later provide the money.
The departments of social services and health probably can proceed with their Medicaid expenditures on the assumption the legislature will later come through with full funding, said Linda Luebbering, Nixon's budget director.
But the House plan, she said, "doesn't do anything other than say we're not going to fully fund the commitments that we're most likely going to have. So I don't understand the logic."
David A. Lieb has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @DavidALieb.