In Dispute Over Nixon's Spending Vetoes, All Sides Agree Overrides May Be Futile | St. Louis Public Radio

In Dispute Over Nixon's Spending Vetoes, All Sides Agree Overrides May Be Futile

Sep 9, 2014

Budget leaders in the Missouri House and Senate say they’ll try to override at least 50 of Gov. Jay Nixon’s line-item vetoes in the state budget in the veto sessions starting Wednesday.

But the governor and Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster say legislators may be wasting their time. And the legislators acknowledged that such override attempts may indeed be symbolic.

Whether symbolic or not, both legislators agreed that any overrides of the governor’s line-item vetoes in the state budget can be overturned by the governor. That’s because the governor has the power to “withhold’’ money allocated in the state budget; the money can be released if state income subsequently allows it.

“Withholds’’ make up most of the $1.2 billion that Nixon excised from the state budget. The legislators are upset about roughly $250 million that he outright vetoed.

State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia – and chairman of the Senate Appropriations – told reporters on a conference call Tuesday that the 50 line-item vetoes represent about $40 million in state spending. They are among more than 100 such spending vetoes.

Missouri Capitol
Credit File photo | Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio

Many of Nixon’s spending vetoes, Schaefer said, were “patently offensive’’ and at odds with the wishes of the General Assembly and of most Missourians.

Schaefer cited, for example, the governor’s veto of $160,000 to equip every Water Patrol boat with a defibrillator to be used in cases of cardiac arrest or heart attacks. Schaefer cited cases where victims might have been saved if the patrol’s boats had such a device.

State Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood – and chairman of the House Budget Committee – pointed to vetoes of spending for programs to aid children or infants or to help failing schools.

Schaefer said the cuts were particularly unfair since the governor continues to spend $500,000 a year on maintaining a Highway Patrol plane that he uses to travel around the state.

The line-item vetoes, said Stream, represented “a direct affront to the legislature.”

Attorney general questions whether legislators can restore spending cuts

But the attorney general’s office indicated in a letter released Monday that there are real constitutional questions as to whether the General Assembly has any power to override a governor’s line-item vetoes from a budget.

Written by Solicitor General James Layton, the letter was a response to Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles. Layton cited provisions in the state constitution that would appear to prevent the General Assembly from overriding line-item budget vetoes.

He acknowledged that legislators had successfully overridden two such vetoes in modern times – in 1980 and in 2013 – and indicated that the reason those legislative actions stood was because the governor didn’t go to court to challenge them.

That legal question aside, Layton also wrote that the General Assembly must vote on each such line-item veto individually.  Stream and Schaefer said they plan to do so – even if the votes end up being purely symbolic.

Overriding the line-item vetoes, even if they can’t be enforced, said Schaefer, will still “send a message.”

Nixon followed through with a message of his own in which he said his vetoes reflected his commitment “to maintaining fiscal discipline and ensuring that state government lives within its means."

“That is why, after the legislature added scores of new programs and spending items to the budget that the state simply cannot afford, line-item vetoes were necessary to prevent the growth of government beyond its means,” Nixon added.

A former attorney general himself, Nixon also suggested that legislators pay attention to the assessment of Koster’s staff and “be guided by its legal conclusion.”