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Counties to sue state over budget cuts for prisons, assessors

December 09, 2002
By: Jason McLure
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's counties are vowing to sue the state over cuts in funding to local prisons and tax assessors.

The counties' lawsuit will argue that the state is in violation of the Hancock Amendment to the Missouri Constitution by cutting as much as $5 million to programs counties are required to provide.

Dick Burke, director of the Missouri Association of Counties, said it isn't fair for the state to pass its budget problems on to local governments.

"It's an unfunded mandate, that's what you finally get to," Burke said.

Last year counties received $22.50 for each night a prisoner spent in a local jail. This fiscal year, which began in July, counties have received just $20. The legislature also cut $2 million in funding for assessors.

The Missouri Attorney General's office, expected to defend the state, has refused to comment on the planned suit.

Burke said the only way the counties would settle the suit is if the legislature made a special appropriation to reimburse counties for the lost funds.

The Hancock Amendment, enacted in 1980, places a number of restrictions on state legislators. One provision prohibits the state "...from reducing the state financed proportion of the costs of any existing activity or service required of counties..."

Boone County Sheriff Ted Boehm said the cut in prison funding had not yet had an effect on his department. Boehm said he was not anticipating the counties would be successful in their suit, since other state laws could be seen to contradict parts of the Hancock Amendment.

The suit is one more drop in a growing stream of state budget woes. According to the governor's budget office, state revenues have been $152 million less than expected through November.

That means many state funded programs, including MU, will not receive all the money promised them in last spring's budget. If the counties are successful, an additional $4 million to $5 million may have to be cut from elsewhere in the state budget.

Last week, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld $21 million in state withholdings from Missouri nursing homes. The nursing homes had challenged the cuts, arguing the state should not have withheld money budgeted to them since revenues in their individual budget fund were not behind projections.

The court disagreed, deciding that the monies were part of the state's general revenue fund.

The governor's office has vowed to cut administrative expenses across the board, but additional withholdings will likely be needed to balance Missouri's budget. Those cuts are expected to be announced next week when the state budget office releases its next revenue report.