I thought about beginning this column as a once-upon-a-time story, using a scene I witnessed several times while covering state lawmakers to set up the issue I will address.
But the story that the state of Missouri has its bank accounts garnished to the tune of $118.5 million is too hot to dawdle. The initial reaction I heard Friday from State Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick is defiance, that the corrections officers who are due the money for unpaid overtime can’t get it because lawmakers haven’t appropriated it.
Fitzpatrick told Central Bank, the holder of the accounts to be garnished, not to honor it, he said.
The garnishment was uncovered by our always vigilant courts reporter Pat Pratt, who also found that the Western District Court of Appeals had refused to stay the judgment and attorneys for the corrections officers will have the state before Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce on April 1 to answer a contempt of court motion.
When he told me what he found, my thoughts immediately turned to the giant hole that would make in the state budget. Pat, of course, was focused in his thoughts on the right people. What about the 13,000 prison employees, already working for poor wages, who have waited years to be paid properly, he asked me.
This is a big story on many levels.
Joyce’s August judgment that determined what the employees are due for underpayments since Aug. 14, 2007, also noted that the system that led to the underpayments hadn’t been changed.
“Defendant has failed and continues to fail to comply with its legal obligation to keep comprehensive, accurate and reliable records of all time worked…,” she wrote.
The corrections officers are preparing another lawsuit claiming that there have been additional underpayments of $4.5 million — an amount that is growing every day — because the order to implement a new system has been ignored. Those are dedicated public employees doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the state and we the taxpayers are shortchanging them.
That’s the personal level. It creates problems on the fiscal level for the lawmakers writing a state budget.
The House Budget Committee this week will finalize its work on the spending plan for the year that begins July 1. Until now, the biggest public worry has been whether state revenues will meet expectations. That depends on whether estimates for decreased refunds and bigger tax payments are correct and revenues rebound dramatically over the next four months.
But the garnishment is an entirely new wrinkle. Some lawmakers on the committee had a vague idea the state had a large obligation for a court judgment, the ranking Democrat, state Rep. Kip Kendrick, said. The spending plan is being written to leave money unspent, he noted.
Lawmakers are not prepared for the courts to seize the money, he said.
“I had no idea it was going to be a garnishment,” Kendrick said. “I believe that the budget committee will be very surprised when they hear this. It will throw a wrench in the current budgeting process that is underway for FY20.”
And the final way this is a big story is the constitutional confrontation it sets up. The basis of Fitzpatrick’s refusal to let Central Bank honor the garnishment is that no money can be spent by the state without an appropriation.
That is true for regular spending. If lawmakers were to ever go beyond June 30 without passing appropriation bills, most of state government would shut down.
But it hasn’t always been the case for money needed to satisfy court judgments. And this is where you get the once-upon-a-time story.
When the state was paying hundreds of millions annually for court-ordered desegregation in Kansas City and St. Louis, a former corporate lawyer named Bud Barnes represented Kirkwood in the Missouri House.
Barnes was a character and a lover of history. When lawmakers would put on their finest at the end of a session, Barnes would sport a straw boater and proclaim that the country had gone to hell since Calvin Coolidge left the White House. Outside his small capital office, he kept a letter board that had “This Day in the Civil War” and reported the anniversary of some noteworthy battle or other event.
Every year in the House Budget Committee, Barnes would propose an amendment to the state budget appropriating the desegregation costs. Every year, before his amendment was defeated, he would explain that the state owed the money to satisfy a final judgment by a federal court and that the state was defying national authority by refusing regular appropriations.
“This was settled on Palm Sunday at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia,” Barnes would say.
The state paid the first installment on desegregation in fiscal 1981. There were no appropriations until fiscal 1993, when costs had already topped $1.6 billion.
Now the confrontation is with the state judiciary. It will play out in Joyce's courtroom.
In a regular lawsuit between private parties, when an appeals court refuses a stay, the judgment can be enforced.
And if it was the state garnishing my money because I hadn’t paid my taxes, I don’t think it would be satisfied by me saying I hadn’t made an appropriation for that purpose.
Rudi Keller is news editor for the Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.