JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon warned on Wednesday that that he will lay off employees and cut services in a vehicle licensing division in response to a legislative budget plan that provides the agency money to operate for only two-thirds of the next fiscal year.
The Democratic governor called reporters to his Capitol office to denounce the partial-year funding plan as "irresponsible" and "unprecedented" and a threat to Missouri's financial stability.
"They leave me no choice: I will reduce staff and services accordingly — including making the necessary layoffs — effective July 1," when the budget for the 2014 fiscal year kicks in, Nixon said while reading a written statement. He took no questions from reporters.
Nixon's remarks came a day after a panel of House and Senate members agreed to a budget plan that would impose a one-third cut in funding for the motor vehicle division in the Department of Revenue and for a state contract that finances the printing of driver's licenses. Republican budget leaders said the rest of the money could be provided when lawmakers reconvene next January, but only if Nixon's administration agrees to stop making electronic copies of birth certificates and other personal documents submitted by applicants for driver's licenses and state identification cards.
Republicans contend the document-copying infringes on privacy rights, though Nixon's administration has defended it as an anti-fraud tool.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer said Wednesday that he is undeterred by Nixon's warning and plans to press forward with the budget plan. The Missouri Constitution requires the House and Senate to give final approval to a budget by 6 p.m. Friday.
Schaefer said "it was pretty reasonable" of lawmakers to propose only eight months of funding for an agency that has not complied with legislative requests to halt the new licensing procedures that were implemented late last year. He said no layoffs are necessary.
"It would be unfortunate that the governor would play games with people's lives like that. If the governor's looking for an excuse to lay off state workers, there's nothing I can do about that," said Schaefer, R-Columbia. He added: "It's absurd on the governor's behalf to overreact and be that irresponsible."
The funding cuts are not expected to force a halt to the issuance of driver's licenses. That's because the cut hit an appropriation line that pays for the processing of titles and registrations for boats, ATVs and manufactured homes. Nixon's budget director, Linda Luebbering, has said the cut also could prevent the state from issuing licenses to dealers and manufacturers of motor vehicles and boats.
Luebbering said Wednesday that details remain to be finalized on the number of employees who would be laid off.
The cut to the vehicle licensing agency amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars out of a roughly $25 billion state operating budget that includes spending increases on public schools and universities.
On Wednesday, the Senate also advanced a capital improvements budget that would spend part of an unexpected surplus of state tax revenues on building repairs and construction. The bill includes $50 million on new Capitol windows and structural repairs, $38 million on a new state office building in Jefferson City, $20 million for state parks and $13 million to fund design plans to replace a mental hospital in Fulton.
The House is expected to give final approval to the construction budget Thursday, when it also debates the final version of the operating budget.