Comma Placement Makes the Difference
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — The power of Missouri governors to make budget cuts could come down to a judge’s interpretation of the power of a comma.
In court arguments Monday, attorneys for Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon argued that a well-placed comma in the Missouri Constitution gives governors the authority to make budget cuts regardless of whether revenues are running short or ahead of projections. An attorney for Republican Auditor Tom Schweich dissected the sentence differently, diminishing the effect of the comma and arguing that Nixon has “misconstrued and misused” his gubernatorial powers.
Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem issued no immediate ruling on the case.
At issue is about $170 million of budget cuts announced in June by Nixon for the 2012 fiscal year that began July 1. The cuts affected public colleges and universities, student scholarships, the judiciary and early childhood programs, among other things. Nixon said they were necessary, in part, to help pay for the unexpected costs of the deadly Joplin tornado and major flooding.
Schweich’s lawsuit against Nixon centers on a section of the Missouri Constitution that states, “The governor may control the rate at which any appropriation is expended during the period of the appropriation by allotment or other means, and may reduce the expenditures of the state or any of its agencies below their appropriations whenever the actual revenues are less than the revenue estimates upon which the appropriations were based.”
There is no dispute that the second half of the sentence gives governors authority to make budget cuts when revenues fall below projections. But Missouri’s revenues generally are on track with projections this fiscal year. Nixon’s legal team contends this year’s budget cuts were made under a separate power granted by the first half of the sentence to control the rate of expenditures — regardless of the status of state revenues.
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