JEFFERSON CITY — An attorney for several school districts argued Wednesday that the governor has no authority to withhold money from public schools even if revenues fall short.
The state countered the governor has an obligation to balance the budget, and the Missouri Constitution expressly grants the governor the ability to withhold funds from any area of government when finances dictate.
Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan heard from lawyers on both sides Wednesday but did not rule on the state’s motion to toss out the lawsuit challenging Gov. Bob Holden’s constitutional power to cut approved spending for public schools. The judge asked attorneys to submit proposed findings by Friday.
Holden, a Democrat, ordered about $200 million withheld from the education budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, saying the Republican-led legislature failed to provide sufficient revenue to cover expenses.
Holden’s action prompted more than a dozen school districts — many in the Kansas City area — to seek a court order requiring release of the funds, which would be distributed among all Missouri school systems.
The state constitution precludes the governor from using his line-item veto power on budget bills to reduce spending for public schools below levels approved by lawmakers. But the next section authorizes the governor to reduce the expenditures of any state agency below appropriated amounts in the event of a revenue shortfall.
The plaintiffs, led by the Liberty School District near Kansas City, claim the sections should be read together, with the first imposing a limitation on the governor’s power under the second.
“The drafters of the constitution recognized there are certain critical functions of state government,” Michael Delaney, the schools’ attorney, told the judge. “Education appropriation has been granted special protected status under the Missouri Constitution.”
The state argues the clear constitutional language shows that appropriations and expenditures are two different things.
“The constitution plainly and palpably authorizes the governor to do what he did,” said Paul Wilson, the state assistant attorney general. “The actions of the governor in this case are no more and no less than what the constitution permits and requires.”
Delaney said it’s important that the judge rule quickly so the next step of the case can proceed, and, if the schools prevail, the state can have time to cut money from other parts of the budget so it can be spent on schools.
“We recognize the Supreme Court is ultimately going to have to make the decision in this case,” he said.