2018 LEGISLATIVE SESSION GETS UNDERWAY JAN. 3
The 2018 legislative session begins at noon on Jan. 3 with the Republican-controlled General Assembly expected to pursue an election-year agenda focused on more tax cuts even as it grapples with additional budget cuts necessitated in large part by previous tax cuts that primarily benefited corporate interests and wealthier Missourians.
The upcoming session will also test whether Republican Gov. Eric Greitens, who had a rocky relationship with the legislature, especially the Senate, during his first year in office will take a more cooperative approach in working with lawmakers or continue the hardball tactics that so far have largely failed him.
Greitens took office last year as just the third Republican Missouri governor since Reconstruction to serve with a legislature controlled by his own party. Although a few bills long-sought by Republicans, that had been blocked by Greitens’ Democratic predecessor, such as a so-called right-to-work measure and legislation to make it more difficult to sue businesses for alleged wrongdoing, managed to win final passage, infighting between Greitens and the legislature prevented Republicans from capitalizing on their solid control of state government.
In what has become an annual ritual, lawmakers are again expected to cut state spending in order to adjust for declining revenues brought on by earlier tax cuts. Adding even more uncertainty is the impact the federal tax cut Congress recently enacted will have on Missouri for the upcoming 2019 fiscal year. Because Missouri’s tax code is tied to the federal tax code, changes in the latter affect the former. Although estimates vary widely, the federal changes could cost the state $100 million to more than $500 million in lost revenue unless state lawmakers pass legislation decoupling the state and federal tax systems.
On opening day, Republicans will outnumber Democrats 25-9 in the Senate and 112-46 in the House of Representatives, which has five vacancies all last held by Republicans. The House vacancies will be filled following special elections set for Feb. 6.
APPEALS COURT UPHOLDS BUDGET WITHHOLDING POWER
A three-judge panel of the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District on Dec. 19 unanimously upheld the governor’s constitutional authority to withhold spending authority for the State Office of the Public Defender’s, ruling that the office is a state agency subject to the governor’s withholding power.
The dispute arose when in July 2016 then-Gov. Jay Nixon withheld $3.5 million of a $4.5 million appropriation increase the General Assembly had granted the public defender for the 2017 fiscal year. Under Article IV, Section 27 of the Missouri Constitution, the governor has the power to restrict authorized spending for “the state or any of its agencies” if he deems it necessary to keep the state budget in balance.
The public defender’s office challenged Nixon’s action, arguing that since state law designates as an independent department of the judicial branch, it isn’t a state agency subject to the governor’s budgetary withholding power. The appellate panel disagreed, upholding a lower court’s determination.
“The Public Defender was created to discharge the state’s constitutional obligation to provide counsel to indigent criminal defendants,” Judge Victor Howard wrote for the court. “It is an instrumentality of the state through which the state performs its constitutional duty to represent indigent criminal defendants. As such, it is a state agency under Article IV, Section 27.”