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Lawmakers speeding up budget process to pressure Nixon

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri lawmakers are aiming to have the state’s $26 billion budget on Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk earlier than ever before this year in an effort to give them time to override any line-item vetoes Nixon might normally make at the end of the legislative session.

After receiving the budget, Nixon has 15 working days according to state law to either sign or veto various line items. In many past years, lawmakers have finished the budget in the final weeks or even days of the legislative session, allowing Nixon to veto various line items and preventing lawmakers from holding an override vote until the special veto session in September.

Lawmakers are hoping to have the budget completed not long after returning from next week’s legislative spring break. April 17 is the date that some on both chambers say is the latest they’d like to see the budget on Nixon’s desk. Based on that date, Nixon will be forced to veto any items before lawmakers leave in May.

For years, Nixon and Republicans have waged a sometimes-bitter fight over state funds. Nixon has liberally utilized his authority to restrict spending and balance the budget by “withholding” funds for various programs, sometimes releasing the funds when revenue levels increase, and sometimes not. Republicans say Nixon is “playing games” with state funds and abusing the budget process, while Nixon has fired back that Republicans aren’t sending a balanced budget.

“The goal is to be in a position to come back in September and only be dealing with the withholds,” said Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Columbia Republican and Chair of Senate Appropriations. “With Amendment 10, we can come back and address just those withholds as opposed to also having to vote on all these line items as well.”

Amendment 10, which voters approved last November, gives the Missouri legislature more authority in the budget process. Any withholds from Nixon are now subject to an override vote just like any veto. But scheduling votes on dozens of items, vetoed or withheld, is a time consuming process, and lawmakers are hoping to divide the work across the spring and fall.

“The reason Amendment 10 was crafted the way that it was, which was that it still preserved the governor’s ability to withhold and that it made it just as hard to override a withhold as a veto was that we wanted it to be difficult to override a withhold,” said Rep. Scott Fiztpatrick, a Republican and Vice Chair of the House Budget Committee. “Because, let’s face it, there are unforeseen consequences that can occur and cause a budget to be out of balance. At the time, we’re basing a budget on an estimation of how much money we’re going to have. More often than not, we hit that number, but last year, there were circumstances where we didn’t.”

Two years ago, the state exceeded it’s revenue estimates on which the budget was crafted, but Nixon continued to withhold funds, citing the potential override of his veto of a tax cut, which he said would drain state funds and put the budget out of balance. Republicans howled that Nixon was using the withholding process to push his own anti-tax-cut agenda. The override vote ultimately failed, thanks in no small part to Nixon’s public comments and withholds of education funds.

The senate will begin holding hearings on the budget this week. Once approved, House and Senate lawmakers will gather in a small conference committee to hash out the differences before sending the measure to Nixon, whose office did not respond to requests for a comment.