State auditor sues Nixon over constitutionality of emergency budget withholds

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

BY TIM SAMPSON
Missouri News Horizon
JEFFESON CITY, Mo. – Missouri’s State Auditor filed suit against Gov. Jay Nixon this past Friday, a week after he issued a scathing audit report that called the governor’s budget decisions in the wake of recent natural disasters unconstitutional.

Republican Auditor Tom Schweich’s lawsuit, filed in Cole County Circuit Court, alleges that the Democratic governor overstepped his authority in unilaterally withholding $172 million dollars from the state budget to help cover the local cost of cleaning-up from the multiple natural disaster that have plagued Missouri this year.

"Our state has recently experienced natural disasters of historic proportion," Schweich said in a written statement announcing the suit. "There is no dispute that the victims of the tornadoes and floods must be fully compensated for their tragic losses. But the process must be legal and transparent.”

But Schweich said there was no transparency. He said the governor’s withholding decisions were made without firm calculations and without consulting the general assembly, which had already appropriated the money for use in the Fiscal Year 2012 operating budget.

Although the state constitution does grant the governor the power to withhold money previously appropriated in the state budget, Schweich said this power is only available as a way to address revenue shortfalls, not to finance unexpected expenditures – even if those unexpected expenditures include disaster recovery.

A spokesman for the governor asserted Nixon’s constitutional authority to single-handedly withhold funds to balance the budget, but did not address some the constitutional issues raised by Schweich’s lawsuit.

“The governor has used his constitutional authority to fulfill his responsibility to reduce spending and to balance the budget, a power used by governors over the years and consistently upheld by the courts,” said Scott Holste, the governor’s press secretary.

Holste said that overwhelming cost to local governments cause by the Joplin tornado, as well as the Missouri and Mississippi river floods, necessitated quick budget action.

But the auditor criticized the governor and the state budget director for failing to keep firm records related to how the amount of necessary withholdings was determined. Schweich said the amount withheld appeared to be a soft, negotiated figure with no hard calculations for his office to verify.

Many within state Republicans have argued that the governor completely deprived the GOP-dominated legislature of a chance to be involved in a major budgeting decision.

“(The governor’s) actions are troubling because the legislative branch of government was not provided appropriate checks and balances, and could result in the Governor basically rewriting the budget without recourse by the General Assembly,” he wrote in the report.

It’s a sentiment shared by Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaeffer, R-Columbia, who earlier this month expressed doubt over the proclaimed need for expediency during a disaster recover sub-committee meeting with State Budget Director Linda Luebbering. Schaeffer said he didn’t see why the state’s share could have been determined by regular supplemental budget amendments during the normal legislative session.

All this comes after Nixon ordered the Office of Administration in June to withhold approximately $172 million from the budget to offset the disaster recovery costs that will not be paid for by the federal government. Of that total, roughly $57 million came from the general fund, but approximately another $115 million came from funds already budgeted for the next year.

For federal disaster areas across the state, the U.S. government pays for 75 percent of clean-up cost. In certain parts of Joplin, the federal government will even pay 90 percent. Bu the rest falls on state and local governments. Nixon has pledge to shift that burden solely to the state