«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL136.PRB - The Budget Fights of Two Nixons«MDNM»
The current fight over state spending between Missouri's governor and the legislature is a part of a fundamental policy dispute that goes back to the early years of our country.
The question involves how much power a chief executive has to control spending to balance the books or to block things passed by the legislature.
Refusing to spend funds appropriated by Congress was a practice that goes back to Thomas Jefferson.
But two men with the same last name of Nixon dramatically changed the legal foundations of this budget confrontation between the executive and legislative branches of government.
For both men, the background is surprisingly similar, although the legal consequences were profoundly different.
Both Nixons suffered veto overrides of spending items they had opposed.
In response, both simply blocked release of funds for those items that lawmakers had put back into law.
It was termed "impoundment" in Washington while in Missouri it's called a "restriction" or "withholding." The effect is the same.
At the federal level, Pres. Richard Nixon imposed a spending impoundment on a water-quality program of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1972.
More than four decades later, Gov. Jay Nixon targeted a variety of programs for spending restrictions arguing the legislature's budget was out of balance.
Both Nixons were attacked for picking winners and losers in their refusal to release funds for programs approved by the legislature.
Richard Nixon was attacked for putting the escalating costs of the Vietnam War ahead of environmental protection.
Jay Nixon has been attacked by legislative budget leaders for blocking funds for programs like rape treatment kits and child abuse investigations while not curtailing money for his near daily plane flights around the state.
The central argument from the two Nixons was that the legislative branch cannot force the executive branch to spend money.
Both Nixons had their spending cut powers challenged in cases that went to the highest courts.
Richard Nixon lost his case in a precedent-setting decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The president cannot frustrate the will of Congress by killing a program through impoundment," the court ruled.
Gov. Jay Nixon, on the other hand, won a decisive victory from Missouri's Supreme Court in a decision that handed Missouri's governor broad and nearly unrestrained powers to restrict spending approved by the General Assembly.
Were he still alive, I suspect Richard Nixon would envy the court victory handed to Jay Nixon.
There is, of course, a fundamental difference between the two governments. For the federal government, there is no legal need to balance the budget.
Washington can just keep borrowing money to fund budgets that exceed tax collections.
Missouri, on the other hand, has a firm prohibition on deficit spending without voter approval.
To make sure the ban on deficit spending is not violated, state laws give the governor broad powers to block release of money appropriated for state programs.
Beyond that, three percent of the state's budget automatically is blocked from being spent until the governor concludes there will be sufficient tax revenues and other income to fully fund the state's budget.
If the governor refuses to release that three percent or decides to withhold even more, there is nothing the legislature can do about it.
Although some governors have applied budget withholdings equitably, there is nothing in the law that explicitly prohibits a governor from picking spending winners and losers to achieve non-budget objectives.
Some governors have exempted appropriations for local public schools from withholdings. Governors have delayed tax refunds or payments to private businesses doing work for the state to deal with budget problems.
One governor even used the promise of eventual release of higher education appropriations withholdings if the universities would loan the state some of their outside funds to help the state meet a short-term cash-flow problem.
Missouri's legislature has put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would give them power to over-turn a governor's budget restriction.
But with state lawmakers out of session more than half the year, I suspect it would have limited application.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]