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Our Opinion: Punctuation, public policy and politics

The issue is as small as placement of a comma and as large as the separation of powers in state government.

And it will be decided by Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem, who heard arguments Monday from attorneys representing Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon and Republican Auditor Tom Schweich.

The auditor has sued the governor for exceeding his constitutional authority when he announced budget withholdings in June for a business year that didn’t begin until July.

The allegation that the governor’s action was unconstitutionally premature hangs on a comma separating two parts of a sentence defining the governor’s authority to manage the budget after it is signed into law.

The sentence reads: “The governor may control the rate at which any appropriation is expended during the period of the appropriation by allotment or other means, and may reduce the expenditures of the state or any of its agencies below their appropriations whenever the actual revenues are less than the revenue estimates upon which the appropriations were based.”

Nixon’s lawyers contend the comma denotes two separate gubernatorial powers.

Schweich’s counsel argued the two phrases are linked, and the second phrase limits the governor’s authority.

What appears to be a simple grammar question portends a possible shift in the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches.

If the comma separates two, distinct powers, the governor legally exercises greater control over the budget approved by lawmakers.

And, beyond the public policy issue, the lawsuit reverberates with political overtones.

Depending on the outcome of the court ruling, the issues are likely to become campaign fodder as the 2012 elections approach.

Beetem faces an unenviable task, as do jurists expected to hear and decide anticipated appeals.

They must rule on the constitutional provision, as written, regardless of its public policy ramifications or political consequences.

We believe the language, specifically the comma, indicates two distinct powers, as suggested by Nixon’s counsel.

As a matter of public policy, however, we fear the imbalance of shifting those powers from the legislative to the executive branch.

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