JEFFERSON CITY — Lawmakers could block spending cuts enacted by the Missouri governor under a proposed constitutional amendment that cleared the House on Thursday.
The Republican-controlled Legislature has voiced displeasure with budget cuts in recent years by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, including the freeze of several hundred million dollars last year while he campaigned to sustain his veto of a tax cut.
Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, who is sponsoring the constitutional amendment, said the Legislature needs a say over spending decisions. The proposal would allow the Legislature to override cuts with a two-thirds vote.
"It proposes a reasonable check on the governor's power to withhold and control the rate of spending," Richardson said.
The Missouri Constitution allows the governor to control the rate at which an appropriation is spent and to reduce an expenditure below the amount included in the budget when revenues fall short of what the budget was based upon.
Under the constitutional amendment, the governor would issue a proclamation to the Legislature whenever the rate of spending will not come in equal quarterly payments that add up to the full appropriation or when the total appropriation is reduced because revenues are short.
Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said the measure would weaken Missouri's balanced-budget requirement by allowing the lawmakers to override cuts. He was elected to the House from 1982 to 1992, returned to the chamber in 2009 and has been involved with the budget most of his career.
Kelly said Nixon has expanded executive power over the budget and that it requires lawmakers do their jobs better, not a change to the structure.
"We have not done a good enough job controlling him," Kelly said.
Nixon has said that the Missouri Constitution requires a balanced budget and that previous governors from both parties have controlled spending. He said the measure would weaken budget safeguards and allow "Washington, D.C.-style spending."
House members approved the constitutional amendment 109-42, and it now goes to the Senate. If the measure passes the Legislature, it would go to a statewide vote later this year.
A budget dispute arose in the fall between Nixon and the Legislature after the governor froze $400 million for education, building projects and other government services while citing concerns lawmakers might override his veto of a tax cut. Nixon argued the tax cut would have punched a hole in the state's budget, but Republican lawmakers criticized the spending freeze as unjustified.
Nixon released $215 million after the veto override attempt was unsuccessful and has since made additional funds available. Another $134 million for capital improvements is blocked.
The proposed constitutional amendment also would bar the governor from cutting spending that goes to paying debt. And the executive could not count anticipated revenue from legislation that is not yet law in the budget proposal submitted to the Legislature.