(Updated 3:05 p.m. Monday, Dec. 1)
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon telephoned legislative leaders Monday afternoon to tell them that he now agrees that there's no need of a special session to allocate more money to pay the extra costs incurred by the Missouri Highway Patrol and the National Guard in their expanded law-enforcement roles prompted by the Aug. 9 police shooting in Ferguson.
House Speaker-elect John Diehl, R-Town and Country, was among the handful of Republican leaders and aides on the 2 p.m. call with Nixon, a Democrat.
As Diehl tells it, Nixon said he concurs with their contention that there's adequate money in the state budget to pay the patrol and National Guard troops this month.
Nixon had announced over the weekend that his administration feared that it would lack the money for the Dec. 15 paychecks to the law enforcement personnel and Guard troops. The legislators have disagreed.
The patrol and the National Guard have been assisting local law enforcement agencies in St. Louis and St. Louis County, as a result of the unrest and protests generated by the Nov. 24 announcement by St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch that a county grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for Brown’s death. The governor called out the guard on Nov. 17 in anticipation of the grand jury decision.
After Monday's call with legislators, Nixon said in a statement that he was dropping the special-session plan because legislative leaders contended that he did have the power to use money that traditionally has been allocated for expenses of the State Emergency Management Agency.
Nixon's staff had not been so sure about that interpretation. But if legislators agree he can spend that money to pay for special law-enforcement expenses, the governor said he was willing to do so.
Nixon and the legislative leaders are relying on the interpretation of Senate Appropriations Chairman Sen. Kurt Schaefer, who wrote that the state could use the $12.5 million appropriation in the special account for the Ferguson-related expenses. “After researching this issue and discussing it with appropriations staff, I can find no apparent reason why the governor cannot use this appropriation for either the Guard or Patrol given that he has declared a state of emergency in responding to Ferguson,” Schaefer wrote.
The agreement means that Nixon and the GOP-controlled General Assembly can avoid a potentially contentious special session.
However, that doesn't mean the governor is off the hook. Diehl said in an interview that he expects the General Assembly will still seek to hold public hearings “to investigate the governor's response to the unrest in Ferguson,'' as the legislative leaders put it in a joint statement.
Diehl asserted that legislators continue to be upset over Nixon’s “lack of communication and information’’ since the police shooting occurred Aug. 9, killing unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
All four legislative leaders – three of whom are from suburban St. Louis – also are upset over the property damage incurred by Ferguson businesses, and elsewhere, in the hours after McCulloch's announcement. Jones, the outgoing House speaker, has been particularly public in his criticism of how Nixon initially deployed the National Guard troops.
After fires and looting destroyed or damaged many Ferguson businesses that first night, the governor tripled the size of the Guard contingent. But the criticisms have continued.
Outgoing House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, asserted in a statement, "My colleagues and I are in the process of activating the existing Joint Committee on Government Accountability to thoroughly examine the governor’s decisions throughout the Ferguson situation, and to take testimony from the many concerned citizens who wish to make their voices heard on this important issue. The committee will be granted subpoena power as needed and we expect committee members to hold their first hearing in the imminent future.”
Over the weekend, Wilson and his lawyers announced that he’s resigning from the Ferguson police department.
Budget battle is longstanding
The legislative leaders issuing Monday's joint statement disparaging the special-session plan were: Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles; Senate Majority Floor Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin; Jones and House Majority Floor Leader (and speaker-elect) Diehl.
Nixon initially had said the session was needed, in part, because the General Assembly no longer passes budgets with the word “estimated’’ in key spending categories, including the Highway Patrol.
Without that word, the governor maintains that he has less flexibility to shift money around in the state budget should the need arise.All four had emphasized in their original statement sent out Monday morning that they are “ready and willing to help the men and women of the National Guard and Highway Patrol, and to ensure that all necessary resources are available to maintain the safety of the public in Ferguson and surrounding communities.”
Diehl contended that Nixon's now-scuttled plan for a special session reflected the administration's pique over the elimination of "estimated" from some budget allocations.
Diehl said that legislators had told the governor during the last legislative session that they no long would draft budgets with the word "estimated'' in them because it "essentially gives the governor a blank check."
In any case, the legislative leaders maintain that Nixon’s administration still has access to:
- “Approximately $3.1 million in emergency assistance money for the Missouri State Highway Patrol;
- “$51.8 million in the patrol operating budget, with at least $6 million made up from the state's general revenue.
- “$3.2 million remaining for emergency payment to the Missouri National Guard in addition to $11.6 million remaining for Guard responses to declared emergencies.”
Nixon’s budget team was in meetings Monday and had yet to reply.
The current fight over money and the now-defunct special session also may be tied to an unrelated budget dispute that goes back months. Nixon and his budget staff have contended that the budget approved by the General Assembly last spring was too generous in spending, and in tax breaks. The governor vetoed the tax breaks, and the General Assembly failed in September to override most of those budget-related actions.
Still, Republican leaders contend that the governor and his budget team are off-base with their own, lower projections of state revenue for the current fiscal year that began July 1.