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Pawlenty's kitchen table budget won't work

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's historic exploitation of executive unallotment power Tuesday -- producing an extraordinary laundry list of $2.7 billion in cuts from schools and colleges, local city budgets and assistance for the most vulnerable Minnesotans -- calls to mind that overdone analogy of a family balancing its budget at the kitchen table.

In this favorite rhetorical device of government-bashers, the family rather painlessly cuts out restaurant dining, goes to fewer movies and delays an expensive vacation so they don't "live beyond their means."

We were among many who have pointed out the severe shortcomings of this allegory. We noted that public education, infrastructure and decent care for the elderly and poor are not frills that can be sacrificed as easily as the premium cable TV package -- and that most families also would look for ways to bring in more money, and would not take reasonable revenue increases off the table.

But still, the wholesome premise was that everyone was in the kitchen and had a say. Until now.

This domestic scene never included unallotment, in which the dominant family member grabs the checkbook, curtly ends the discussion, dismisses all those assem-bled, and decides to slash at will, starting with the resour-ces for the most vulnerable family members -- and resulting in less of everything for everybody but those with the most cash in their wallets.

It's fairly clear from past practice that unallotment power was intended as an emergency tool to deal with unforeseen budget shortfalls occurring in the midst or toward the end of budget periods.

That is how the process has been used over the decades. It never has been used before the beginning of a budget period as a way to impose executive branch authority over the legislative branch, which has primary responsibility under our constitution for budgets and appropriations.

The governor's autocratic actions may be unconstitu-tional and may face legal challenge. But the consequen-ces of exercising unallotment in the way the governor proposes go well beyond the balance-of-power question -- and even beyond less money in the budget. Unallotment also means Minnesotans will see less of these qualities of good government.

Unallotment puts decisions that could have been jointly negotiated in the hands of one person who, by declaring his intention not to run for re-election, is less responsive than ever to the will of the state's voters. Already there are concerns that the inside deliberation on what will be unallotted is too closed, too secret, and not open enough to public inspection. Growth & Justice recently called for much more sunshine on the unallotment process.

Although the governor has made some movement away from the hard line he took during the legislative session, unallotment will still disproportionately affect the poorest and the least powerful Minnesotans. Those immediate impacts are becoming clearer: health care will be out of reach for more low-income citizens, community colleges will cost more, public school districts serving low-income children will spend more on interest payments, and police and fire protection will be scaled back.

Critics argue that too much government spending is on "autopilot." But an aircraft on autopilot flies more safely and efficiently -- especially compared to one in which the rudder and throttle are being jerked back and forth. Arbitrary cuts by unallotment will create a ripple effect of inefficiencies as local governments and service providers scramble to lay off workers, cut services and borrow money.

The state has already used up reserves meant to help deal with rainy days. Now, in the midst of a predicted storm, the governor has refused to raise new revenues to cover at least part of the staggering shortfall. Instead, he has resorted to more accounting shifts and gimmicks, leaving his successor with an unprecedented projected deficit in the next budget period and less stable budgeting.

A last "lessening" -- investment -- is the most serious of all. Minnesota actually needs more and smarter public sector investment in the human capital and infrastructure that have helped nourish a good business climate and sustained our enviable quality of life. Our state's leading economists have pointed to the need for more investment in education, starting with the crucial early-childhood years, in university-based research, in roads and transit, in environmental clean-up of "impaired" waters and air quality, and in public health and health care.

Instead, we remain hell-bent on continuing a course of public disinvestment that began early in the decade -- which has begun to show up as Minnesota's relative performance slips on critical measures of economic vitality and quality of life.

We may have a seat at the kitchen table, all right. But now we are only spectators.

Dane Smith is president and Charlie Quimby a Communications Fellow for Growth & Justice, a think tank that focuses to policies that make Minnesota's economy simultaneously more prosperous and fair.