The Missouri Supreme Court granted victory Tuesday to Gov. Jay Nixon in a two-year-long budget battle with State Auditor Tom Schweich, ruling that the auditor lacked the legal authority to try to stop Nixon from making spending cuts after a deadly Joplin tornado.
The high court said the state constitution does not give the auditor the power to contest spending decisions as they occur, only to audit the books after the fact. The procedural ruling leaves open the possibility that Schweich could sue again after doing a formal audit of the governor's office.
At issue were $172 million of spending cuts to education and other state services announced by Nixon in June 2011 for the budget year that ran from July 2011 to June 2012.
Nixon said at the time that the cuts were based partly on the expectation that Missouri would incur large unbudgeted costs as a result of a tornado that devastated Joplin a month earlier and widespread flooding. The governor set aside $150 million to pay for the disaster response and recovery efforts.
But most of that money never was needed. The Associated Press reported this summer that Missouri's costs from the 2011 disasters totaled a little more than $36 million. The bulk of the money that Nixon set aside simply was absorbed into the budget and spent on other government programs.
Schweich, a Republican, sued in August 2011, claiming that Nixon lacked the constitutional authority to make the budget cuts because the governor failed to show that revenues were falling short of the projections upon which the budget was based. Nixon, a Democrat, countered that Schweich exceeded his own constitutional authority by challenging the governor's policy decisions in court.
The state Supreme Court said Schweich's challenge to the governor's budget-cutting power amounted to a pre-audit of state spending, because it occurred before the fiscal year ended.
"The Constitution does not give the Auditor the authority to conduct a pre-audit of other state officials' spending, which is in effect what the Auditor attempted to do," the Supreme Court said in a unanimous decision that dismissed Schweich's lawsuit.
Nixon quickly put out a news release noting his victory.
"The Missouri Supreme Court has confirmed once again that Missouri governors have the authority and the responsibility to rein in spending and keep the budget in balance — and over the past four and a half years, that is exactly what we have done," Nixon said.
But Schweich told the AP that the court made only a "procedural ruling" that means "we filed the lawsuit too soon."
"That leaves us with two options: Do a post-audit of the Governor's office now and file suit, or work with the Legislature to restrict the ability of the Governor to make withholds when there exists adequate revenues to fully fund the budget," Schweich said separately in a written statement. "We will spend the next several days determining which option to pursue, or whether to pursue both options."
House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said in a written statement that he was extremely disappointed by the court's ruling and asserted that Nixon had abused his budget-cutting authority and "circumvented the nature and intent of our Missouri Constitution."
"It is troubling that instead of ruling on the merits of the case, the court chose to dismiss it on procedural concerns," Jones said.
When cutting the budget, Nixon often cites a section of the state constitution that gives the governor authority to control the rate of state spending. That same section also says governors can withhold money budgeted for state agencies and programs when actual revenues fall below the estimates upon which the budget was based.
Although Nixon originally blocked $172 million of spending in the 2012 budget, the final cut ended up at $159 million because he later released money for school busing and several other programs.
State Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said last month that he plans to pursue a constitutional amendment that would clarify and limit the governor's authority to cut the budget. Richardson contends governors should be able to cut the budget only in times of emergency or funding shortages. His proposal could be considered by legislators during the 2014 session and, if approved, would be referred to the statewide ballot.