The multi-billion-dollar question for Minnesota organizations that receive state money is whether challenging Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s budget-cutting efforts in court would be worthwhile.
On first blush, it would appear a Wednesday court ruling saying Pawlenty’s summer budget cuts are unconstitutional would encourage more groups to sue over his actions. And dozens of organizations are thinking about doing just that.
But on Thursday, the day that Pawlenty said he would appeal the court order, the governor joined others in saying that in the end, more court action may not restore the cuts.
"If you win, what do you win?" asked Gary Carlson of the League of Minnesota Cities. "The state has a deficit that still has to be resolved. … Do you have any long-term victory?"
Carlson’s cities lost $192 million in state aid when Pawlenty trimmed $2.7 billion from the $30 billion, two-year budget. But since the state still must plug a growing budget hole, the cities still could end up losing aid, he said. "Somebody has to balance the budget."
Pawlenty said the ruling by Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin may mean little to the current budget.
"The practical effect of this, I don’t think will be significant," he said Thursday while announcing he would appeal Gearin’s ruling that says his unilateral state budget cuts were unconstitutional.
He told reporters that he "respectfully disagrees" with Gearin’s ruling that orders his administration to restore a $5.3 million program providing medically necessary special diets to 4,300 poor Minnesotans.
Pawlenty said the money would resume as soon as possible, but he will fight the ruling. An appeal, to the state Supreme Court or Appeals Court, could come within days or weeks, he said.
Gearin said Pawlenty overstepped his authority. She said state law allows him to make cuts in unexpected economic situations, but in this case he knew fiscal problems existed while the Legislature remained in session and he and lawmakers were preparing the new budget.
The law usually has been implemented near the end of a budget when revenues failed to meet expectations. In this case, Pawlenty made the cuts as the two-year budget began.
Gearin said that Pawlenty’s actions removed the Legislature from its constitutional role of appropriating money.
In the budget’s first year, which started July 1, most of the $2.7 billion of cuts came from Pawlenty’s decision to delay $1.1 billion in payments to school districts.
Pawlenty said that since Democratic-Farmer-Laborite leaders, who control the Legislature, proposed similar delays that he will ask them to formally approve the payment shift. He said that could happen soon after the Legislature begins its 2010 session on Feb. 4 or he could agree to a few-hour-long special session before then.
Many people affected by the cuts, such as cities and people who receive state medical aid, have thought about suing Pawlenty.
"I have talked to dozens of actual clients and prospective clients about the legality of unallotment and I would expect in the aftermath of this decision, I will be talking to a lot more," said David Lillehaug, a former U.S. attorney and DFL activist who worked on Al Franken’s successful U.S. Senate election lawsuit.
"It is a direct clash between the executive powers and the legislative powers, decided by the third branch of government, the judiciary," Lillehaug said.
He called Gearin’s decision one of the most important court rulings in Minnesota history.
While the Gearin ruling officially affected only the $5.3 million program that supplies special diets to the poor, Lillehaug said that impact reaches much further.
"I think the logic of the ruling applies to the entire $2.7 billion of unallotment," Lillehaug said. "If it was illegal to unallot one relatively small food aid program … there is no reason why the larger unallotments are not illegal."
Carlson, whose organization represents most Minnesota cities, said that even though the governor may have been wrong in using his unallotment powers, it may not make sense to sue.
"Even today as we look at this decision, what ultimately might be the remedy if the governor’s actions are overturned?" Carlson asked.
The answer might be, he added, the same or larger cuts as the governor made this summer.
Taking Pawlenty to court would be expensive, Carlson said, so his group’s board of directors must decide whether it is worthwhile.
"These issues are tough," he added.
No one knows that better than Rep. Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, who leads the House Ways and Means Committee.
"We have re-established our responsibility to do the appropriation and balancing the budget," Solberg said of the court ruling’s impact on the Legislature.
Now, he added, there needs to be a better "relationship between the legislative branch and the executive branch."
But DFL lawmakers complain that Pawlenty refuses to cooperate.
"It becomes more difficult with this governor than I have seen with other governors," Solberg said. "I think it is time for all sides to take a deep breath and compromise."
Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, was more blunt.
“I applaud the District Court’s opinion to restrain Gov. Pawlenty’s mean-spirited decision to deny medically necessary food supplements to vulnerable Minnesotans," said Huntley, who heads the House Health Care and Human Services Finance Committee. "That program provided over $5 million for life-sustaining diets to 4,300 elderly people and those with disabilities."
The Republican governor said Gearin’s ruling means the courts may end up making budget decisions that should be made by lawmakers and the governor.
"The judge dove into this with some relish," he said.
Gearin’s order temporarily forced the Pawlenty administration to restore payments, with another hearing on the topic scheduled for March 1.
Pawlenty said he will obey the judge’s ruling while he appeals it, but he also will reach out to legislative leaders to find another budget solution.
Since Pawlenty made the cuts this summer, the state’s budget deficit has worsened, which he said could lead to another round of budget cuts, known as unallotments, if he and lawmakers cannot agree to a deal.
Major areas of cuts Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposes to the Minnesota budget over two years:
— $1.8 billion – delays in state payments to public schools
— $300 million – reduce state payments to local governments
— $236 million – trim most state agency spending
— $100 million – cuts from state college and university budgets