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Nixon refuses to exempt 'hold harmless' school districts from curb in state aid

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 13, 2010 - Gov. Jay Nixon appears headed for a showdown with some legislators after signing into law the state's supplemental appropriation bill for public education, which provides $86 million in additional state money to help replace shortfalls in other sources of education revenue, notably gambling.

But the money is about $43 million less than what districts would receive if fully funded.

The upshot: Nixon said he was "distributing the money proportionally among all Missouri school districts in accordance with the existing foundation formula law,'' which means all state districts share equally in the cuts.

That runs counter to the provisions that the Legislature approved in HB 2014, which sought to protect about 150 "hold harmless" school districts from additional trims in their state education aid. Most of those districts -- including most districts in St. Louis County -- already receive proportionally less state money because they are deemed to be wealthier.

Nixon said adding such protective provisions amounts to "legislating through appropriation," which he said is "unconstitutional in Missouri, and therefore that portion of the bill is not binding."

Nixon said that school districts had been told in February by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education "that their June payments would be distributed proportionally among all the districts in accordance with the existing foundation formula. The governor believes that besides the constitutional prohibition against legislating by appropriation, the attempted funding change would present school districts with uncertainty and confusion at the very end of the fiscal year."

Some legislators approve the move -- such as outgoing state Rep. Rachel Bringer, D-Palmyra, who plans to run for a local judgeship in 2012 -- and others oppose it, including state Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau.

Crowell told reporters that the governor was overstepping his bounds, while Bringer said his decision was the fairest to all school districts.

Nixon's announcement included approving comments from the Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee.

But late Tuesday, Missouri Republican Party executive director Lloyd Smith weighed in with strong words challenging Nixon's action.

“Gov. Jay Nixon has assumed near-dictatorial control of state government, exercising the powers of all three branches of government: judging what is constitutional, legislating by rewriting the bill to fit his worldview, and using his executive powers to enforce his version of the law," Smith said.

“Nixon has set an appalling precedent, declaring that state agencies are no longer bound by a law duly passed by the General Assembly. Regardless of their view of the practical outcome of Nixon’s action, Missourians should be frightened that Jay Nixon has granted himself the power to flagrantly violate the law whenever he chooses.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.