JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri — Missouri voters recently gave lawmakers more power over state spending decisions. Yet there's uncertainty at the Missouri Capitol over whether it's OK for lawmakers to actually start using those new powers.
When the Missouri General Assembly convenes Jan. 7, one of the things that lawmakers will have to decide is whether they want to try to invoke a new constitutional provision to overturn some of the roughly $700 million of spending restrictions imposed by Gov. Jay Nixon.
Some lawmakers are willing to do so. Others don't think they legally can.
"I think it's an open question," acknowledged Rep. Todd Richardson, who sponsored the constitutional amendment.
The uncertainty stems from the sequence of events that unfolded in 2014.
Lawmakers who were frustrated about Nixon's previous budget cuts proposed a constitutional amendment asking voters to give them the ability to override gubernatorial spending restrictions by a two-thirds vote of both chambers. The House passed the measure in February and the Senate followed suit in May, referring the measure to the general election ballot.
In June, Nixon announced $276 million of line-item vetoes and an additional $846 million of spending restrictions for the 2015 budget that began July 1. He cited concerns about declining revenues and the potential for lawmakers to further drain the state's finances by enacting tax breaks for businesses.
Lawmakers in September overrode $53 million of those line-item vetoes, but Nixon quickly placed a spending freeze on the items that continued to block them from going forward. Although he released some funding that he had previously withheld, Nixon continued to freeze about $700 million of budgeted expenditures.
Constitutional Amendment 10 won voter approval in November and officially took effect in early December. It requires the governor to send a proclamation to the legislature whenever he withholds any budgeted expenditures. Legislators can then vote to override the spending restrictions.
If Nixon were to announce spending restrictions today, lawmakers clearly could use their new constitutional powers.
What's less clear is whether lawmakers can cite the new constitutional provision to overturn the spending restrictions Nixon announced last summer, before voters approved the amendment.
State Rep. Tom Flanigan, a Republican from Carthage who is expected to become House budget chairman in January, doesn't believe so.
"As I see it, it's just going forward — it's not a retroactive piece of legislation," Flanigan said.
Richardson, who is to become House majority leader in 2015, also has some doubts. He said his intention was for the amendment to be "forward-looking." Richardson notes that Nixon didn't deliver a proclamation to lawmakers when he originally announced the spending cuts, because that wasn't a requirement at the time.
"The operative question is whether that proclamation is necessary for the legislature to act" to override the spending restrictions, said Richardson, a Republican attorney from Poplar Bluff. "Frankly, there's some fairly compelling views that we can, but I also think there's some legitimate concerns that we can't."
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer is among those who believe lawmakers can reverse Nixon's spending restrictions. He views the budget cuts not as a past action but an ongoing one.
"If the governor is continuing to withhold, then he is subject to an override by the legislature under Amendment 10 to release that money," said Schaefer, a Republican attorney from Columbia.
Similar reasoning was cited by Joshua Hawley, an associate law professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia who focuses on constitutional law. Because Nixon has continued to impose the spending restrictions after passage of the constitutional amendment, "it is a live action" and Nixon now could be required to submit a proclamation to legislators about the spending restrictions, he said.
Nixon said in a written statement that he's continuing "to review the legal and budgetary implications" of the amendment. He has taken no public position on whether he believes lawmakers legally can override his current spending restrictions.
David A. Lieb has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995. Follow him at https://twitter.com/DavidALieb