Published Online: April 14, 2010

Mo. Gov. to Spread Education Cuts to All Districts

Gov. Jay Nixon signed a midyear spending bill Tuesday but said he plans to ignore lawmakers' instructions to shield more than one-quarter of Missouri's public school districts from a budget cut.

Instead, all 523 school districts will share the pain of a $43 million shortfall in the basic state aid distributed to schools. The funding cut comes because of falling state revenue.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education initially planned to split the funding shortfall among every school district. Lawmakers attempted to reject that by inserting a provision in a supplemental budget bill that directs state education officials to spare about 150 school districts.

Nixon, a Democrat, said it was unconstitutional for lawmakers to do that in a budget bill. He ordered state education officials Tuesday to ignore the provision and follow their initial plan, which he said distributed money fairly and provided clarity and stability for schools.

"There is a long-held legal prohibition in Missouri against legislation by appropriation," Nixon spokesman Jack Cardetti said. "If the Legislature wants to change how money flows to schools, they should change the statutes. They cannot do that through an appropriation bill."

Some senators accused Nixon of overstepping his authority while some House members praised the move as providing schools with stability. The Missouri Republican Party's executive director asserted the governor had "assumed near-dictatorial control of state government."

Sen. Jason Crowell said the courts decide what laws are unconstitutional and Nixon should have used his veto power if he objected to the school provision.

"He does not unilaterally ... get to say what is constitutional or not," said Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau. "That shakes the very foundation of our form of representative democracy."

Other lawmakers defended Nixon's decision.

"Forcing other districts to endure even greater financial burdens is simply unfair, especially when the means of doing so violates the Missouri Constitution," said Rep. Rachel Bringer, D-Palmyra.

The root of the controversy is a formula approved in 2005 to distribute basic aid to schools. It is to be fully implemented in 2012. The formula specifies that school districts — called "hold harmless" districts — would not have their state aid cut even if the new formula called for it.

But the 2005 formula does not offer guidance about what to do if the Legislature cannot provide all the money that is required.

Senators later Tuesday gave first-round approval to separate legislation that gives the state until 2018 to fully implement the new funding formula and sets up a method for cutting state education funding.

That bill envisions two scenarios:

• If lawmakers cannot provide the additional money the new formula demands but can pay at least what schools currently get, the amount of new aid going to schools would be shrunk. The "hold harmless" districts would not have their state funds trimmed because they do not receive the increases.

• If lawmakers cut education spending below current levels, then the "hold harmless" districts that get more local money than state funds would get a 10 percent cut to their state aid. After that reduction, the rest of the shortfall would be divided among all 523 districts.

That legislation is sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, who also sponsored the 2005 school funding formula.

"There is no way to do this and keep everyone happy," said Shields, R-St. Joseph.

Among the least happy are senators from the St. Louis-area, who contend the legislation would punish school districts that have increased local taxes to support education. Critics said the legislation would "redistribute" money.

The legislation tells some schools "they should be penalized an extra 10 percent because they do the right thing by public education by taxing themselves and being good stewards of the taxpayers' money," said Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis.

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