The blow that the Minnesota Supreme Court handed Gov. Tim Pawlenty Wednesday was all about process, rule of law and careful interpretation of the Minnesota Constitution and state statutes.
But in my 35 years of Capitol watching, it also ranks as a truly historic moment, one of those defining verdicts in the always shifting power struggle among the three branches of government. And it has far-reaching implications in the perpetual conflict over the size and role of our state and local governments.
Beneath the legalese, it was a spanking -- a sharp refresher course on the separation of powers among the legislative, executive and judicial branches. The ruling narrowly applied to Pawlenty's unallotment of $7.2 million in a state program that helps disadvantaged people with special dietary needs. Its impact on the remaining $2.5 billion in unallotments is unknown. Much appears to depend on who comes forward with further legal challenges.
The court ruling simply says that the Legislature has the primary power to appropriate and enact state budgets, and that the governor can't unilaterally impose a budget just because he and the Legislature can't agree.
The majority opinion did not address the larger questions of whether an extreme and unprecedented "no-new-taxes'' dogma is driving our state and local governments to the brink of dysfunction, or endangering public safety and long-term economic growth. But the decision can only be interpreted as a setback for anti-government Tea Partiers, who claim constitutional support for their assertions that the current role and size of our governments, and of taxes themselves, are somehow illegitimate.
The majority decision gives no aid or comfort to that proposition. Instead, Justice Alan Page, in his concurring opinion, voices serious concern about a vague unallotment statute that, even when properly used, "leaves the executive branch with virtually unfettered discretion to decide which funds to cut entirely.''
Even some of the state's most conservative thinkers were nervous about the unallotment spectacle. Most people with horse sense knew it was over the top. Never before had a governor actually signed into law all the major appropriations bills; then vetoed the tax bill that financed the budget; and then used the resulting budget "emergency'' to invoke his unallotment power -- all before the budget period even began.
Beyond the Supreme Court's narrow legal interpretation lies a larger question: Should Minnesota continue its risky experiment with starving and cutting public investment, clinging at all costs to a philosophy of no new taxes?
Most moderates and progressives realize that this course is not working, and that growing economic inequality calls for strategic public investments, largely toward educational attainment and business-friendly public works infrastructure. By helping better the condition of people of poor and moderate means, such changes will do good for business, and for all of us.
Dane Smith, St. Paul, is president of Growth & Justice, which describes itself as "a progressive think tank committed to making Minnesota's economy simultaneously more prosperous and fair."