JEFFERSON CITY _ Some strings on county government budgets were loosened by the Missouri legislature this session.
"For fifty years the county commissioners have complained about the circuit court judge being able to set his budget," said Sen. Emory Melton, R-Cassville, who has served in the Senate for 23 years. "The sheriff's budget is the largest and the commissioners don't have anything to say over it."
In the past, judges would put together budgets for the circuit court, granting sheriff's raises, demanding that a prison be built and leaving no room for the commission's projects.
The only way the commission could protest would be to appeal to the Judiciary Financial Commission in Jefferson City. However, this board consists of judges who often sympathize with the circuit court judge.
The process has long frustrated county officials. But a strong sheriff's association lobby has kept any bills that altered the process from passing.
This year the sheriff's association met with the county association and cut a deal. With the two associations agreeing on what needs to done, lawmakers had little opposition.
"It makes sense," said Sen. Joe Maxwell, D-Mexico.
What finally passed represented a watered down version of what the commissioners wanted.
The bills do not give judges more control over the circuit court budget, instead it simply limits when the judges can demand more money and forces them to give the county commission more notice.
One bill of the bills would:
@ Allow counties to amend the annual budget during a fiscal year in which the county receives additional funds.
@ Require the judge to submit the budget for the circuit court to the county commission 15 days prior to the deadline for the next budget year.
@ Take the power to grant raises at any time during the year away from judges. The only time the judge could grant raises or hire new employees would be at the time the budget is submitted or in the case of an emergency.
Another bill would require the judge to consult and confer with commissioners on his budget. This bill started out only applying to St. Louis.
"When other county commissioners heard about it they thought it was a good idea and wanted to be included," said Sen. William Clay, D-St. Louis.
Other bills that dealt with counties, but went nowhere, were:
@ Extend north Missouri brush control laws to all forms of counties. Now, only township counties have to abide by the brush control laws.
@ Let ordinances have ordinances enforcing any state law.
@ Require equal pay raises for county officers in non-charter counties.
Another bill affecting counties that cleared the legislature would extend the term of county commissioners from two to four years.