Schools pursue new fund ruling

Court asked to decide if governor exceeded his powers with school cuts.
Friday, November 14, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:57 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY— Having lost before a trial judge, some school districts on Thursday asked the state Supreme Court to consider their claim that Gov. Bob Holden exceeded his constitutional powers by cutting state school spending to balance the budget.

At issue is Holden’s decision to withhold nearly $200 million from elementary and secondary education this year, claiming the legislature failed to provide sufficient revenue to cover the budgeted expenses.

One section of the state constitution prohibits 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 in suburban Kansas City, claimed the sections should be read together, with the first imposing a limit on the governor’s power under the second.

But Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan rejected that argument when granting the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit earlier this week. The state argues the constitutional language clearly shows that appropriations and expenditures are two different things.

“The citizens of Missouri adopted a Constitution in 1945 containing numerous provisions reflecting education as a top priority for the state and requiring the state government to respect that priority even in difficult financial times. The Governor wants this Court to ignore those provisions and look at one constitutional provision in isolation. That approach is wrong,” said the schools’ attorneys said in their filing with the state Supreme Court.

Also in Thursday’s filings, the school districts asked the Supreme Court to bypass some filing rules and take up the case on an expedited basis.

“Unless this court acts in an expedited manner, the damage done because of these withholdings will be irreparable, and a constitutional wrong will be without a remedy,” the filing stated.

The attorneys asked that arguments in the case be heard next month.

Attorney general Jay Nixon’s spokesman, Scott Holste, said the office had received the filing and agreed with the need for a quick schedule.

Michael Delaney, an attorney for the 14 school districts, has said it is important that the case move quickly because, if the schools prevail, the state needs time to cut money from other parts of the budget so it can be spent on schools.

The Missouri Supreme Court sidestepped interpreting the two sections in a 1992 case brought by the Sikeston School District in response to education withholdings by then-Gov. John Ashcroft. In that case and subsequent decisions, the Supreme Court said the governor has broad constitutional authority to reduce spending to keep the budget in balance.

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