Missouri’s Republican auditor accused the state’s Democratic governor of violating the Missouri Constitution by making millions of dollars of spending cuts in the 2012 budget.
A report by State Auditor Tom Schweich asserts that Gov. Jay Nixon went beyond his gubernatorial powers to balance the budget by barring $161 million of spending that year, even though state revenues exceeded estimates.
“We believe it’s crystal clear under the Missouri Constitution that that was an illegal withholding process,” Schweich said.
Nixon’s office said in a written response included in the audit that Schweich’s interpretation of the state budgeting process was inaccurate.
The audit represents an encore to a court battle between the two Missouri officials. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled last October that Schweich lacked the legal authority to try to stop Nixon from making spending cuts during the 2012 budget year, concluding that the auditor has the power only to do an after-the-fact review of the finances. Schweich then initiated an audit.
“As Missouri courts reminded the auditor in rejecting his lawsuit on this issue, governors have the clear constitutional authority and responsibility to control spending and keep the budget in balance,” Nixon spokeswoman Channing Ansley said.
Schweich released his report before legislators convened to consider overriding $276 million of line-item vetoes that Nixon made to the 2015 budget. The report also comes in advance of a November ballot issue in which voters will decide whether to grant legislators additional powers to overrule gubernatorial decisions on spending restrictions.
The budgetary dispute between Schweich and Nixon dates back three years, when Nixon announced he was imposing spending restrictions for the 2012 budget that took effect in July 2011. Among other things, Nixon cited concerns about costs from a deadly tornado that struck Joplin in May 2011 and widespread flooding across the state.
Many of the disaster costs did not actually come due until later budget years and were not as high as originally feared.
The Missouri Constitution gives governors authority to control the rate of state spending. It also says governors can withhold money budgeted for state agencies and programs when actual revenues fall below estimates.
Schweich contends Nixon violated that second constitutional prong, because he continued to freeze spending despite the fact that state general revenues slightly exceeded the revised estimate for the 2012 fiscal year.
The governor’s written response contends the “consensus revenue estimate” — agreed to by executive and legislative budget officials — is not legally binding and that governors must also consider other things impacting state revenues when making budget decisions.
Schweich countered that Nixon’s administration was “contorting and distorting the constitutional authority to allow them to do what they want to do.”