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New spending cuts further test tension between GOP, Nixon despite lawmakers' budget powers


JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri — Tensions remain high between Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and Republican lawmakers who are frustrated about his spending cuts, even with the 2014 amendment designed to give the Legislature another check on the executive's budget powers.

This week's letter from House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Flanigan served to juice the long-running spat. The Republican criticized Nixon's recent actions to cut spending by roughly $46 million, cuts the Democratic governor said were necessary because of the loss of an expected $50 million tobacco settlement that the state likely won't see this fiscal year.

But Flanigan's letter, dated Monday, questioned the need for the cuts, pointing to strong revenue growth at the end of last fiscal year and saying the state has enough money in its $26 billion budget to compensate for the shortfall.

Flanigan also questioned Nixon's timing in letting the Legislature know about the new spending restrictions on "critical state services" and on other budget changes this fiscal year.

He cited concerns with Nixon not announcing until after the mid-September veto session that more than 2,000 appropriations wouldn't be spent at an equal quarterly rate. And Flanigan said the governor waited a week to formally let lawmakers know about spending cuts after making a public announcement Oct. 19.

Flanigan said Nixon must let lawmakers know about a budget change before he acts, and said the governor's delayed notification violates the state Constitution.

"Governor, you are not above the law and certainly not above our Constitution," Flanigan wrote.

Nixon spokesman Scott Holste disagreed, saying in an email that the amendment doesn't spell out the timeframe when the governor must update lawmakers. He also defended the action to block spending.

"The Governor has a responsibility to keep the budget in balance," Holste said. "To make sure that the state does not spend money that it does not have, the Governor implements spending restrictions — while continuing to monitor revenues throughout the year."

The spat between lawmakers and the Democrat has spanned Nixon's nearly seven years in office, during which he has repeatedly used his constitutional authority to block or slow spending in order to balance the budget. His actions often come despite lawmakers' insistence that such cuts are not always necessary.

So, lawmakers last year pushed a constitutional amendment to give them the power to overturn gubernatorial spending cuts with a two-thirds majority vote of each chamber. Statewide voters in November 2014 approved the change, which also requires Nixon to let lawmakers know when he cuts or changes the rate of expenditure.

Since then, Nixon has continued to cut spending previously approved by the Legislature, and lawmakers so far have not tested their new powers to overturn him.

Budget director Dan Haug also disputed lawmakers' claims that there's enough money to make up for $50 million settlement, saying that although revenue growth was strong last fiscal year, it wasn't even enough to fully cover all the spending the Legislature had approved for that year's budget.

An appeals court Sept. 22 — after the mid-September legislative veto session — ruled that tobacco companies don't owe Missouri the $50 million, which is part of payments the companies make to states under a 1998 settlement aimed at covering the costs of providing health care to those with tobacco-related illnesses.

Flanigan said he's unsure if lawmakers will try to overturn the spending restrictions by Nixon when the next legislative session begins in January.

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