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Missouri lawmakers upset over budget vetoes may override Parson in September

Missouri Gov. Mike parson answers questions about appointing Gabriel Gore as the next St. Louis Circuit Attorney to replace Kim Gardner on Friday, May 19, 2023, during a press conference at the Mel Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri legislators say they may try to override Gov. Mike Parson's budget vetoes in September.

Gov. Mike Parson raised a lot of eyebrows late last month when he struck funding for roughly 200 items from Missouri’s roughly $51.8 billion budget, vetoing everything from major construction projects at community colleges to a project that would spruce up a pond at a Ballwin park.

Parson contended that he wanted to prevent future budgetary difficulties when Missouri’s finances may not be as robust as they are now. But some Republican members of the legislature are furious with his decision-making and say they may try the unusual step of trying to override Parson’s vetoes in September.

Sen. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, takes notes on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, during an Education and Workforce Development Committee hearing at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, said members of the St. Charles County delegation are "irate" over Parson's vetoes.

Sen. Nick Schroer, for instance, said he was especially incensed by Parson’s decision to veto a number of projects in St. Charles County — including measures aimed at bolstering public safety and cleaning up drinking water. The St. Charles County Republican went so far as to say that residents there “were betrayed.”

“They just set aside all the hard work thrown in the garbage can — line item vetoed with zero explanation,” Schroer said. “And I stand with all of my colleagues. One hundred percent of us in the St. Charles County delegation are irate at how this all went down.”

Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, also was disappointed by Parson’s vetoes — notably funding for the City of St. Louis meant to clamp down on crime.

“Generally vetoes of budget items are supposed to be if there's a problem with the item, or if, more importantly, we don't have the money for it,” said Merideth, ranking member on the House Budget Committee. “In this case, in most of these cases, the governor didn't point to problems. And he acted as if we were short on funds, when we've got more money left over than we've ever had before.”

In many instances, Parson said he was vetoing line items because, among other things, the state would be losing roughly $300 million because of tax cut-related legislation. He also wrote that Missouri “has consistently maintained a AAA bond rating, and we will ensure a blanched budget for years to come.”

But what Merideth was alluding to was how Missouri still has a huge general revenue surplus that can be spent on basically anything. House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage, said that surplus is currently around $2 billion — which he said is unprecedented.

“With the governor's vetoes, I appreciate that he is keeping an eye on the state's budget, fiscal health and our credit rating,” Smith said. “However, I disagree that this is the difference between us being able to manage that or not. We still have a lot of money unexpended.”

Rep. Cody Smith (R-Carthage), the chairman of the budget committee, speaks to the media on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, during the first day of the legislative session at the Missouri Statehouse in Jefferson City, Mo.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Rep. Cody Smith, R-Carthage, the chairman of the Budget Committee, will have a major say on which vetoes could face an override in the Missouri House.

Will the legislature override Parson?

Missouri lawmakers have an opportunity to be more than just upset: In September, they’ll return for the legislature’s veto session. It would take two-thirds of the House and the Senate to override Parson.

Even though Republicans could overturn Parson’s objections without any Democratic votes, Merideth said that any successful override will require bipartisanship.

“I think a lot of these things may have bipartisan support when we're talking about public safety, especially,” Merideth said. “These are things that passed the legislature and passed for a reason. I think it's very possible that we make a push together to override some of those vetoes.”

Smith said that generally any member of the House can instigate an override attempt on a budget item, though he added that a successful effort likely requires support of the House Budget Committee chairman.

He noted that there are several vetoes he was especially disappointed about, including funding to study improvements on Interstate 44.

“I-44 comes right through my district and really touches a lot of communities across the state,” Smith said. “It's a very important artery, arguably as important as I-70. And so I didn't think it was too much to ask to address some things on 44.”

The Senate, though, is historically more strict when it comes to override attempts. Any push to override Parson’s veto likely will have to be instigated by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield.

Hough told the Missouri Independentthat there are conversations going on about possible overrides. He said in a statement that the “state budget is about balancing revenue and expenditures, not just for the current fiscal year but looking down the road for several years.”

“Looking at the revenue side last fall, we passed the largest tax cut at $1 billion, which decreases general revenue, and we are expecting a rather flat revenue stream for the next couple of years,” Hough said. “On the expenditure side I instructed my staff the last week of session to track the fiscal cost of [finally passed] legislation. So I’m not surprised the governor is also looking at these items.

“I said on the Senate floor this past session, it is a balancing act, the act of cutting taxes and passing legislation that either further reduces state revenue or adds cost to the states programs,” he added. "We can’t have it both ways.”

Parson spokesman Jonathan Shiflet said while the governor “has serious concerns with the budget items he vetoed, as explained in his veto messages,” his office will “decline to comment on speculation regarding what the General Assembly may or may not do.”

Prepared for a rainy day?

Not everybody is upset with Parson’s budgetary vetoes.

Among those who are supportive is Elias Tsapelas, director of state budget and fiscal policy for the Show–Me Institute. Before joining the think tank, Tsapelas worked for Missouri’s Division of Budget and Planning.

He said some of Parson’s vetoes made sense, especially ones that can clearly be funded through local, and not state, money.

“The budget was the largest in state history, and there were a ton of things that were in the budget that I generally don't think are things that should be funded with state tax dollars,” Tsapelas said.

Merideth said he understands that local entities need to sometimes put up their own money for projects. But he added that Parson vetoed a $1.5 million appropriation for a youth jobs program in St. Louis because the city already allocated COVID-19-related funds for the effort. "Are you willing to pony up when a city is putting a lot of money forward?" he said.

Tsapelas also said that Parson’s argument that the state should prepare for bad financial times is a sound one — though he added that the state’s so-called rainy day fund is too cumbersome and that lawmakers often just cut governmental programs rather than try to access it in economic downturns.

He said creating a state fund that can be used to fill budgetary shortfalls in down financial times would be a wise move for legislators.

“I do think the governor has thrown out a couple ideas in the past of a kind of cash operating reserve fund,” Tsapelas said. The legislature's never been on board, but it's still something I think could use some rethinking.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.