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Whimsical unallotment analogy for Minnesota

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Bottom line: Not paying your bills is just plain wrong

Until the court decision that found part of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's massive budget unallotment gambit to be unconstit-utional, I was strongly considering sending a letter like this to some of those annoying people who keep demanding that I pay my bills -- one in particular.

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Dear Cell Phone Service Provider:

I know that I agreed to certain financial obligations for your services -- you could say that I just "signed into law" all of these monthly charges as part of a new two-year contract. But a pretty serious projected shortfall in my household finances compels me to "unallot" about 10 percent of my contractual obligation to you guys, indefinitely, and before I pay my first bill. My legal advisers tell me you can and must continue providing this service, even with this reduced funding. I might add that your bill over the years has been going up by amounts I find "unsustainable," even though I agreed to all these new services. To explain further, although I could easily raise the funds to pay this bill, I have pledged to my family that we will have "no new income" as long as I am boss around here -- enough is enough. Oh, and by the way, my "unallotments" extend to lots of other things my other household members previously agreed to. I know this might seem unusual or "wrong," but please read the attached news clippings showing how the governor of Minnesota has decided not to fund appropriations that he legally signed into law, through this process called "unallotment." Cell phone folks, let me give you some advice: Tighten your belt and live within your means! Or do what I've done: Unallot YOUR obligations!!

Warmly,

Mr. Smith

P.S. Maybe you could save some bucks by getting rid of Catherine Zeta-Jones as your celebrity advertiser. She's getting a little old, and I've heard Tiger Woods is cheaper!

Granted, this analogy is a bit tortured. But it's at least as valid as comparing our state budget process to a family balancing its checkbook at the kitchen table. One important difference is that our state government's responsibilities to 5 million Minnesotans -- for law enforcement and emergency services, vital long-term investments in schools and colleges, hospitals and public health, and environmental protection - are much more important than one family's cell phone service.

But the hypothetical letter has one crucial aspect in common with the unallotment scheme: It does not hold up in court. It would not be legal, and neither is Pawlenty's unilateral exercise of unallotment power, according to a ruling by highly respected Ramsey County District Court Judge Kathleen Gearin, a senior jurist and the Ramsey court's chief judge.

Unallotment as Pawlenty practiced it last summer, before the two-year budget period even began, is unconstitutional and an abuse of executive branch authority, in Judge Gearin's view. And most knowledgeable observers -- left, center and some on the right -- seem to be agreeing.

It's noteworthy that conservatives such as Politics in Minnesota Publisher Sarah Janecek described the ruling as "a good decision for the state" in that it forces a closer review of unallotment powers and the separation of powers principles.

One of the more fact-based conservative bloggers, SCSU Scholars opined that the "arguments are over things that are sufficiently vague that one hopes the higher courts take up the case."

Yet another senior conservative opinion leader, Mitch Pearlstein, editorialized in an MPR commentary that it would be hard to imagine a court somewhere NOT issuing "at least a 'whoa, pardner' at some point."

The St. Paul Pioneer Press described the decision as addressing "an important constitutional issue that cried out for judicial interpretation."

But beyond all this process stuff lies the larger question of whether Minnesota should continue its risky experiment with starving and cutting public investment, adhering to the "no new taxes" mantra, and slashing our bottom-line Price of Government (total state and local revenues as a percentage of total income) by about 10 percent over the last decade.

Last summer, I co-wrote an editorial with retired business owner Charlie Quimby arguing that the unallotment grab would not pass constitutional muster, but I think the more important "told you so" was our point about the value of public investment in advancing broader prosperity.

We said then and will affirm now that Minnesota actually needs more and smarter investment in these things: education, especially in the crucial early-childhood years and toward a much improved higher-education attainment rate; in transportation and transit and on our crumbling public works infrastructure; in the clean-up of impaired waters and climate-changing air quality; and in public health and health care for needy and struggling middle-income families who are in distress - in part because of private-sector failures.

These are not just frills or bills that can be ignored.

Our state's leading economists, folks like Federal Reserve Vice President Art Rolnick and State Economist Tom Stinson (not to mention national commentators such as conservative David Brooks), have called out for more investment in these assets that have always helped nourish a good business climate and created an enviable quality of life.

But back to my tortured analogy: My family actually needs the mobile phone service, and not just because of the technical legality that we agreed to it. We need it because the world is changing in ways that require more, not less, spending on certain things -- and community-building, business-enhancing public investment fits that bill.

Dane Smith is president of St. Paul-based Growth & Justice, a progressive research organization that focuses on economics and state-and-local budget issues. He also spent 30 years as a writer for the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press, where he delved into state, local and federal governments and politics.

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