JEFFERSON CITY — Spending cuts by Gov. Jay Nixon, including the freeze of several hundred million dollars during his campaign to sustain the veto of a tax cut, is prompting Missouri lawmakers to contemplate a constitutional amendment targeting the governor's budget power.
Critics contend Nixon has gone too far, and Rep. Todd Richardson said he is working on a measure for the legislative session starting next week. Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said the budget freeze made the issue more pressing.
"I think the governor has used more (budget) withhold authority than any governor in the history of the state," he said.
Richardson said he wants to preserve flexibility for chief executives to keep the budget balanced when revenues fall short or disasters strike but also ensure governors cannot change lawmakers' spending decisions without justification.
The Missouri Constitution says 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."
There seems to be general agreement among officials that the second portion lets the governor make cuts during a shortfall. Nixon has argued the authority to "control the rate" of spending also permits him to restrict spending when revenues are not falling short.
Nixon froze $400 million for education, building projects and other government services when the current budget took effect July 1, while citing concerns legislators might override his veto of the tax cut. Missouri started the fiscal year with a cash balance of $450 million, and Republican lawmakers criticized the cuts as unjustified.
The governor argued the tax cut would have punched a hole in the state's budget and in September released $215 million after the veto override attempt was unsuccessful. He has made additional funds available, but $134 million for capital improvements remains restricted.
Nixon, a Democrat, said the budget powers are necessary tools and have been wielded by Republicans and Democrats. He said it is a "vital component" of the state's fiscal discipline and that credit rating agencies specifically have cited it while giving Missouri its AAA-rating.
"They should look at their responsibility, which is work with us to appropriate money where we can make a difference, and as that money comes in, then we're very happy to spend it," Nixon said.
In addition to the recent budget freeze and tax cut debate, the state auditor unsuccessfully challenged previous cuts in a case that ended up before the Missouri Supreme Court. The high court ruled the Republican state auditor does not have authority to contest spending decisions as they occur, just to audit the books after the fact.
At issue were spending cuts totaling $172 million for education and other state services, which Nixon announced in June 2011. Nixon said at the time the cuts were based partly on the expectation Missouri would face significant unbudgeted costs from the deadly Joplin tornado and widespread flooding. He set aside $150 million, and the cost for the disasters came in at a little more than $36 million. Most of the money set aside was absorbed into the budget and used for other programs.
The final budget cut ended up being $159 million because Nixon released some funds for school busing and other programs.
Sen. Ryan Silvey, who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee and is a former House Budget Committee chairman, said the budget issue seems to have been highlighted for a broader audience.
"I don't think that was the original intent of the people who framed that section of the constitution that the governor could use funding as a political hammer," Silvey, R-Kansas City, said.
Rep. Chris Kelly said changes are needed but that it doesn't mean there should be a constitutional amendment.
Kelly, D-Columbia, was elected to the House from 1982 to 1992 before legislative term limits kicked in, returned to the chamber in 2009 and has been involved with the budget for most of his career. He said Nixon has filled a vacuum and that lawmakers need to zealously guard their power over the purse.
"We need changes. We don't need statutory or constitutional changes," Kelly said. "We need the legislature to do its job more effectively. The reason Nixon has been historically more aggressive and effective than previous governors is the legislature has allowed him to."
Enacting a constitutional amendment would require voter approval if the measure passes the legislature.