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Showdown over education withholdings set for Supreme Court

December 01, 2003
By: Drew Bratcher
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - A legal battle over withholdings to K-12 education that began in July makes its way to the highest court in the state Wednesday.

Fourteen Missouri school districts are asking the Missouri Supreme Court to reject Gov. Bob Holden's $192 million in withholdings to public schools.

"We remain adamant that the state constitution states that once funds are appropriated they cannot be withheld," said Larry Ewing, superintendent for Fort Osage.

School districts argue that a section in the state constitution that prohibits the governor from cutting the education budget through his line-item veto powers also prohibits the governor from withholding money from public schools.

"We believe that the constitution requires the governor to make tough decisions regarding revenue, particularly during tight times," said Scott Holste, a spokesman for the attorney general's office.

In November, the schools lost their first legal battle on the issue after a Cole County circuit court judge upheld the governor's power to withhold money from education in times of projected revenue shortfalls.

Nevertheless, schools remain confident in their efforts.

"Even if we lose, I think we win," said Scott Taveau, superintendent for Liberty schools.

"We have raised the issue throughout the state to common citizens ... that there is a problem in funding Missouri schools," Taveau said.

House Republican leaders have argued that state revenue collections have been so high the last few months that there is no need for the lawsuit because there's no need for the withholdings.

House Budget Committee Chairman Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles, said that it was a sad thing that schools had to resort to legal action to deal with unnecessary withholdings.

Bearden maintains that revenue is up high enough for Gov. Holden to make funds available for schools.

"It looks like we are still above 5 percent revenue through November," Bearden said. "That is more than enough to fund the budget and to give schools their money."

Officials from the governor's office did not return repeated phone calls.

The lawsuit raises fundamental questions about the governor's powers to control spending during times of budget shortfalls. In addition to the powers to withhold money, the constitution also gives the governor power to control the rate of agency spending.

But the schools argue local education is exempt from that spending-control power of the governor as well.

Under the Missouri Constitution, money to local schools is given out in 12 monthly allotments, each of which is to be 1/12 of the total amount appropriated.

A final question is whether or not the governor's withholdings which have reduced the monthly amount given to schools to less than 1/12 of the original amount appropriated is unconstitutional.

Ewing, the Fort Osage superintendent, said that if the court upheld the withholdings, he hoped that the governor would consider releasing some money in light of revenue increases cited by the Republican leadership of the House.

But the governor has charged that the numbers used by Republicans are misleading.

The Missouri Supreme Court will hear Liberty School District v. Bob Holden on the morning of Dec. 3 in Jefferson City.