OPINION | Of lutefisk and pyrrhic victories


When Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin issued a temporary restraining order on December 30, preventing Minnesota from terminating a food assistance program, many of us jumped for joy. With a week’s sober reflection, that injunction is beginning to feel like a pyrrhic victory.

Minnesota presently projects a $1.2 billion biennial budget deficit. It is the large serving of lutefisk gracing state legislators’ plates, an unwelcome entrée requiring brave-faced consumption. From a fiscal policy perspective, conservative Governor Tim Pawlenty is the gleeful kitchen steward, shoveling more gelatinous, rehydrated cod while insisting that diners are the better for the experience.

Pawlenty forbids any discussion of revenue increases, insisting that all budget shortfalls be solely resolved through spending cuts. To date, he commands sufficient minority legislative support, narrowly blocking any veto override. State Senate and State House majority caucus leaders have failed to sway minority caucus minds away from Pawlenty’s policy position.

However objectively harmful to Minnesota’s present and future, we are stuck with a conservative public policy framework. At least, for the moment.

At first blush, the Gearin decision would seem to break that logjam.  A successful TRO requires evidence of irreparable harm and a reasonable expectation that the case will succeed on its merits. Gearin found that, by TRO standards, Governor Pawlenty exceeded his constitutionally defined executive authority and usurped that of the legislature. Judging from media interviews with law professors and litigators, everyone else seems to agree.

Narrowly, Gearin ordered [PDF] the Pawlenty administration to reinstate the Minnesota Supplemental Aid Special Diet program retroactive to November 1st, 2009. Broadly, her order challenges Pawlenty’s entire unallotment strategy and there’s the rub.

Late last spring, Pawlenty outmaneuvered the state legislature by signing the majority caucuses’ expenditure bills that were roughly $3 billion more than projected biennial revenue. Rather than sign a revenue increasing tax bill to balance the budget, as legislative leaders hoped, Pawlenty announced that he would exercise his executive authority later in the summer, trimming $3 billion of his choosing.

He did and, well, here we are now, right back where we started.

If Pawlenty’s unconstitutional authority usurpation stands and if Pawlenty’s conservative legislative minority continues to block revenue increases, then suddenly Minnesota’s $1.2 billion deficit balloons to $4-plus billion. The pile of legislatively unpalatable budget deficit lutefisk just got much, much larger.

Pyrrhus was King of Epirus, a Greek region bordering the Ionian Sea. Today, Epirus is divided between Greece and Albania but 2300 years ago it was a regional power locked in conflict with Rome, a competing but rising regional power. Pyrrhus led his armies against Roman forces in 280 BCE and again in 279 BCE. He triumphed and inflicted greater casualties on the Romans than his army suffered. Rome, however, drew upon a vastly larger supply of troops than Epirus and its allies could hope to field.

Pyrrhus is reported to have recognized this problem and, according to the Roman historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, said “one more such victory would utterly undo me.” A pyrrhic victory has come to mean one that is achieved at crippling, unsustainable cost.

Minnesota’s path forward through the economic recession and its dispiriting fiscal malaise requires sacrifice and compromise. Rabid insistence on “only budget cuts” or “just tax the rich” are unrealistic and irresponsible. Minnesota cannot cut its way out of the budget deficit anymore than it can tax its way out. We need a solution that cuts the budget and raises revenue.

Conservative ideological intransigence hurts Minnesota, limiting our future. State public policy must be grounded in common sense progressive values. We succeed when we invest in people and create opportunity.

Judge Gearin’s TRO decision creates an opportunity for state public policy leaders to sail a new tack. If they focus on what really matters -education, health care, transportation and economic development- Minnesota will move forward. If they don’t, the plate of lutefisk grows ever larger.