Does Legislature Hold Spending Control?

Supreme court hears unallotment case

In the simplest terms, Minnesota’s seven Supreme Court justices are deciding if the Legislature has full control of state spending, or if the governor has a role once a budget is approved.

The decision could affect not only the current state budget, but also could impact the power future governors wield.

Specifically, the high court’s task is deciding if Gov. Tim Pawlenty acted legally last summer when he cut $5.3 million out of a state-funded dietary program. But, more broadly, the court may decide if the Republican governor’s $2.7 bill budget-balancing act should stand and how future governors can use the budget-cutting law.

Pawlenty’s attorneys and a legal aid lawyer representing six Minnesotans who for a short time lost state aid for their special diet needs argued their sides in front of the Supreme Court for an hour and 26 minutes on Monday. It is rare that justices extend arguments for more than an hour, but the chief justice said that was necessary because of the importance of this case.

Justices jumped into questions seconds after the first attorney took to the podium, and seldom allowed a full answer to any of their questions.

Chief Justice Eric Magnuson asked each attorney a question that appeared central to how justices will decide the case dealing with state budgeting: Does the governor or Legislature decide "who gets what, when?"

State Solicitor General Alan Gilbert said a balanced-budget requirement supersedes other considerations, so a governor may need to cut programs.

Galen Robinson, representing those whose diet money was eliminated, said that is not the governor’s decision.

"We are dealing with pure legislative power," Robinson said about spending, saying cuts Pawlenty made encroach on legislative powers.

While state law does give the governor "unallotment" authority to trim budgets in emergencies, Robinson said, "the triggers for this statute were not met" when Pawlenty chopped $2.7 billion, reducing the state’s two-year budget to $31 billion.

There was no indication when the justices would rule on the case, but legislators hope for a quick ruling because they have just two more months to meet this year.

Robinson’s clients sued Pawlenty, alleging that he used his unallotment authority too early in the budget process, right after the new budget began last July 1. They claim, backed by the state House, that unallotment is to be used only in emergencies and only near the end of a two-year budget cycle when it is obvious that revenues will fall short of the state’s needs.

Monday’s case came after Pawlenty disagreed with a late December judge’s ruling saying he made some of his $2.7 billion in cuts illegally. The Dec. 30 court ruling only dealt with the $5.3 million program that provides special diets to 4,300 Minnesotans with medical problems, but many have been watching the case to see if others whose programs were affected by cuts also will sue.

The governor ordered funding to the program restored the day after the local court ruling.

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said $800 million to $900 million of the $2.7 billion in cuts could be overturned if Pawlenty loses his appeal.

Pawlenty attorney Patrick Robben told justices Monday that there is an overriding duty for the governor to balance the budget, so "they have to give a large amount of flexibility to the executive."

Justice Paul Anderson and Magnuson asked if the governor had to follow legislative guidelines when making cuts, perhaps leading to equal across-the-board cuts instead of the governor picking out specific programs to eliminate.

"There are limitations about where you can find that kind of money," Gilbert said, so the governor by necessity needs to decide where to cut.

Not mentioning that Pawlenty is not seeking re-election, Gilbert said that voters, not judges, should decide if Pawlenty made the right decision.

"I’m trying to decide what the constitution requires," Magnuson shot back.