Most people do not realize that there is no constitutional requirement that the Missouri General Assembly produce a balanced budget. Both branches have generally stayed true to the principle, but our Constitution places the responsibility for balance solely upon the shoulders of the governor. The Missouri Constitution (Article IV, Section 27) empowers the governor to withhold any amount necessary to achieve balance.
Amendment 10 on the November ballot is an effort to fix something that is not broken. The Republican supermajority in the legislature is frustrated by Governor Jay Nixon’s frequent and aggressive pattern of withholding. They, and I, believe that Nixon has withheld funds far beyond the simple need to balance the budget and has repeatedly withheld to accomplish or thwart various policy or political objectives. Hence, we have Amendment 10, which would allow the legislature to override any withholding by a two-thirds vote, as with a veto.
There are two problems with Amendment 10. First, it arises out of political frustration, not policy goals. The cure for the problem of Nixon’s aggressive withholdings is for the legislature to work as hard as he does in the budget process. Whatever Nixon’s flaws, indolence is not among them. The legislature is free to write a much more specific budget, placing significant restrictions on the executive and/or simply not appropriating in certain areas. The legislature has chosen not to take that step for two reasons –– it takes a lot more work and it means more political heat from reducing spending in popular areas.
The Republican frustration (and mine) arises from our opinion about how government should work, not the governor’s violation of the law. Fixing matters of political opinion with Constitutional amendments is a bad idea.
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The second and far more significant problem is that Amendment 10 builds a back door to an unbalanced budget. The legislature would have the power to override the governor’s withholding whether or not it resulted in an unbalanced budget.
Amendment 10 clouds the responsibility for balancing the budget. Today we know who holds ultimate responsibility. If Amendment 10 passes, the responsibility will become far less clear. Anyone who has ever watched government or political parties function knows that it will be easy to end up in a situation where both sides blame the other –– but with a bottom line of no bottom line. It is foolish for Republicans to argue that they would never behave foolishly, or with a political agenda, or with malice, if only they had this additional power.
If you are a conservative there is a further reason to oppose Amendment 10. Governor’s withholdings always end up in less government spending, and legislative overrides of withholding always ends up with more spending. If you generally oppose government spending, then Amendment 10 is not for you.
No Democrat — and few members of the General Assembly — has been as critical of Gov. Nixon as have I. But the most important job of any governor is the proper management of the state’s financial health. Nixon has faced the most difficult economic climate since the great depression. Missouri is coming out of that recession with a balanced budget and a triple-A credit rating. Whatever my disagreement with his methods, Nixon has managed the finances of the state of Missouri in exemplary fashion.
Amendment 10 can only lead to more government spending and may well lead to an unbalanced budget. In this instance, nothing is broken. Simple political frustration is not a sufficient basis to endanger Missouri’s long history of balanced budgets.
Rep. Chris Kelly, serving House District 45, lives in Columbia.