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Covering state lawmakers, bills, and policy emerging from Jefferson City.

Restricted Public Defender Funds Latest in List of Nixon Withholding Debates

Senator Dixon's office
Sen. Bob Dixon (R-Springfield)/Photo Credit: Missouri Senate

A Republican state senator from Springfield is urging Gov. Nixon to release funds for Missouri’s public defender system. As KSMU’s Scott Harvey reports, Sen. Bob Dixon feels a failure to do so would undermine the legislature’s work to protect public safety.

The system provides representation for defendants who can’t afford lawyers.

Dixon, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a release Monday that there is “no compelling reason” for Nixon’s withholding of $1.4 million in budgeted funds.

Eric Jennings, the Senator’s chief of staff, says work this session to curb public defender’s caseloads was passed in the form of HB 215, and a lack of funding would be a detriment to all parties involved in the criminal justice system.

“The Senator would say that we need to; when dealing with those withholds, also need to look at what the core constitutional duties are of the state government. And the Judiciary, the Legislature, the Executive are those core constitutional duties, and should be assessed differently when dealing with those withholdings,” Jennings said.

Nixon’s office has said the public defender system was one of many to have their appropriations restricted when the budget year began July 1. On Monday, the Governor said funds could be released later on.

“They weren’t picked out any different than anybody else, and they won’t be treated differently as we move forward. As revenues become available, we’ll look at releasing restrictions,” said Nixon.

The head of Missouri’s public defender system has told employees that a hiring freeze will start Nov. 1 and furloughs could be necessary should the money not be redistributed, a concern cited by Sen. Dixon.

The Springfield lawmaker was among several this summer to voice opposition to the Governor’s withholding of education and mental health funds amid the controversy of HB 253. Eric Jennings says Dixon would consider supporting a measure that could curb Nixon’s withholding power.

“He’s looking forward with great interest to any proposed constitutional amendments that might clarify, and put necessary limits on what that authority is.”

State Rep. Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) and Sen. Ryan Silvey (R-Kansas City) have said they’ll file such amendments next session, giving Missouri voters the opportunity to clearly define the governor’s withholding rights.

Earlier this month, in a lawsuit challenging Nixon’s withholding ability, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Governor, saying, among other things, that state Auditor Tom Schweich filed his suit too soon.