When Strunk and White’s rules of grammar are used to open up arguments in a courtroom, you can bet it’s going to come down to splitting hairs. At issue is a comma, which separates two clauses in the constitution.

Darrell Moore (standing), representing Auditor Tom Schweich, presents his arguments to the court. The Governor’s attorney, Chip Edwards (front) listens. (Photo courtesy Julie Smith / Jefferson City News Tribune.)

That’s what happened today in the court hearing of Schweich versus Nixon, a case in which the state auditor says the Governor does not have the authority to withhold funds from other departments in order to give them to another.

The suit comes on the heels of $170 million dollars cut from the budget by Governor Nixon … who said they were necessary to pay for the devastation caused by flooding in Southeast Missouri and tornado damage in Joplin.

Auditor Schweich’s attorney, Darrell Moore, tells the judge the Governor has misinterpreted the constitution.

Nixon’s legal counsel, former Supreme Court Judge Chip Robertson, counters that this case threatens the very powers vested to a Governor to make sure the state’s financial house is in order. He says what’s at stake is the ability for the governor to make sure the state’s budget is balanced within the appropriations provided by the General Assembly.

Regardless of good intentions, State Auditor Tom Schweich had said Governor Nixon is not authorized to re-apportion state funds to pay for disaster recovery. Nixon had said the shift was justified because the budget line for disaster relief contains an “E” next to the dollar amount — indicating it is an estimate that can be expanded to unlimited amounts to cover needs.

About that comma —

The argument centers on the Missouri Constitution section that states, “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.”

The second clause of the sentence does appear to give the governor the power to withhold portions of the budget when state revenues fall below projections, but those projections are typically in line with actual revenues.

Nixon’s attorney says this year is different because the withholdings were made under a separate power, a power stated by — look before the comma — the first half of that constitutional statement.

The case was heard in Judge Jon Beetam’s courtroom in Cole County. No decision has been handed down, but regardless of what that decision is, the case is expected to go to a court of appeals.