When balancing the budget, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has some of the most expansive powers among his peers. He can reduce spending for anything he chooses, and has done so repeatedly.
But a proposal on the Nov. 4 ballot would flip that around. If approved, proposed Constitutional Amendment 10 would give Missouri lawmakers the final say on state spending by allowing them to override a governor’s budget cuts.
The ballot measure is rooted in a six-year spat between the Republican-led Legislature and the Democratic governor who during his tenure has blocked billions of dollars of budgeted spending — in some cases, even as tax revenues have exceeded projections.
If passed, the amendment would allow legislators to try to override more than $700 million of spending restrictions that Nixon has imposed on the budget that runs through June 30. It also could affect budget decisions for years to come.
Nixon opposes the amendment. He says it could “lessen the fiscal strength” of the state.
“I don’t think it’s right for us to limit the power of the chief executive, the power that’s been used by governors over the years … to maintain that fiscal balance,” Nixon said.
Republican lawmakers who referred the amendment to the ballot contend Nixon has abused his budget-balancing powers, especially when he has temporarily frozen spending as leverage to persuade legislators not to enact tax breaks.
“What Amendment 10 ultimately does is it restores that appropriate legislative role of setting the state’s spending priorities,” said Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, who sponsored the amendment.
The Missouri Constitution allows governors to slow the rate of spending on programs. It also says governors can reduce spending whenever actual revenues are less than the estimates upon which the budget was based. Nixon has cited the first provision to justify spending freezes based on his concerns about the state’s financial future, even when current revenues are fine.
Most states allow governors to reduce spending, but often with more limitations than Missouri, according to information compiled by the National Association of State Budget Officers.
Connecticut and Vermont, for example, limit their governors to spending reductions of 1 percent without legislative approval. Maryland and Nevada bar their governor from reducing spending for K-12 education.
When revenues fall short of expectations during the first half of the fiscal year in Georgia, the governor can require agencies to slow spending until the legislature can meet to consider budget reductions. Several other states also grant lawmakers some say in spending reductions.
Missouri’s proposed constitutional amendment appears to be unique in that it would essentially treat gubernatorial spending reductions the same as line-item budget vetoes. It would allow the House and Senate to override a budget restriction by a two-thirds vote of both chambers — the same mark already used to override vetoes.
Currently, when lawmakers override line-item vetoes, a governor can still block the spending by imposing a restriction upon it. That’s exactly what Nixon did after legislators overrode 47 of his line-item vetoes in September. The ballot measure would give lawmakers the power to lift those spending restrictions, as well as others imposed by the governor.
Democratic Rep. Chris Kelly, who has criticized many of Nixon’s spending restrictions, nonetheless believes the amendment poses a “serious problem.” He said legislators could override gubernatorial spending restrictions that are essential to keeping the budget in balance.
“This is very, very unconservative to do this,” said Kelly, of Columbia, a former House Budget Committee chairman who is barred by term limits from seeking re-election.
Richardson said he trusts his colleagues not to plunge the state into deficit spending by overriding too many gubernatorial spending cuts. He contends Nixon currently has “unchecked power.”
The proposed constitutional amendment is based on “a very conservative notion- that our government is supposed to work on a system of checks and balances,” Richardson said.