Unallotment leads to legal challenge

Budget cuts made by Gov. Tim Pawlenty without legislative approval landed in court Nov. 16, as a judge weighed whether […]

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Budget cuts made by Gov. Tim Pawlenty without legislative approval landed in court Nov. 16, as a judge weighed whether to temporarily restore money to a food program for the poor amid a challenge to the governor’s authority. The program serves low-income people, many with disabilities.

The court challenge stems from $2.7 billion in cuts the Republican governor announced this summer to balance the budget. He took the action using unallotment, an executive power that allows the governor to trim spending on his own, after he and the Democratic-controlled Legislature failed to agree on a budget.

Lawyers for both sides warned Ramsey County District Judge Kathleen Gearin of the potential effects of her decision.

Galen Robinson, who represents six elderly or disabled people who lost a monthly state stipend that helps cover special diets, said his clients and others in the $5.3 million program will face extreme hardship if the cut isn’t overturned. Most, he said, have income of less than $800 a month and diets that cost $300 or more.

Patrick Robben, an attorney for Pawlenty, said the state will have trouble paying its bills if Gearin rules against the administration because others hit by cuts would see even a temporary restraining order as an invitation to file similar lawsuits.

“Your honor is going to be running the state budget right out of this courtroom,” Robben said.

Robben and state Solicitor General Alan Gilbert asked Gearin to dismiss the case altogether.

Pawlenty has used the unallotment law twice before and prevailed in a lawsuit attempting to block cuts he made in 2003.

What’s different in this case is how Pawlenty invoked the power. Lawmakers sent Paw-lenty a full set of tax and spending bills, which he signed except for a bill that raised taxes to erase a projected deficit. Rather than calling the Legislature into a special session to balance the budget, he used his executive power to make cuts of his choosing.

Robinson said Pawlenty misused the unallotment law, which has typically been used on an emergency basis toward the end of a two-year budget period to patch holes. This time, the cuts were announced at the beginning of the 2010-2011 budget.

“There are other ways to deal with this before we get to ‘The sky is falling down,’” Robinson said, arguing Paw-lenty could have called a special session or waited until lawmakers returned for the 2010 session to work out a fix.

The plaintiffs are also attempting to preserve property tax credits they normally get for being renters, a budget item Pawlenty also reduced.

Gearin didn’t say when she would rule, but said a case involving constitutional separation of powers gives her extra reason to “tread very lightly.” She also acknowledged that her ruling probably won’t be the last word in the case. “I’m merely a way station on the road to appellate courts,” she said at the hearing’s outset.

Just before the court hearing started, the House Rules Committee voted 14-8 along party lines to submit a brief in support of the lawsuit. The brief will be prepared by nonpartisan staff.

Democrats who run the committee denied they were wading into the dispute as a way to poke Pawlenty. They said it’s a reasonable and cost-efficient way to weigh in on the separation-of-powers issue.

“This is not about right versus left,” said House Majority Leader Tony Sertich of Chisholm. “It is right versus wrong.”

Republicans say the House should stay out of the court fight. They say if Democrats have problems with the way Pawlenty employed the unallotment law, they can try to change it. [Source: Associated Press]

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