High court tackles unallotment case
By Don Davis
State Capitol Bureau
ST. PAUL -- Whether Gov. Tim Pawlenty acted legally when he cut $2.7 million from the state budget last summer may rest on whether Minnesota Supreme Court justices think the Legislature has given the governor a right to trim budgets.
The state's attorneys told seven high court judges today that Pawlenty had to make the cuts to balance the state budget, as the constitution requires. A legal aid attorney representing six people whose aid for medically required diets was cut by Pawlenty argued that the Legislature has the sole responsibility of deciding how to spend state money.
Attorneys argued for an hour and 26 minutes in a case with far-reaching ramifications both for the current budget and future governors' powers.
Chief Justice Eric Magnuson asked each attorney to answer one question about state budgeting: Does the governor or Legislature decide "who gets what, when?"
State Solicitor General Alan Gilbert said the balanced budget requirement supersedes other considerations.
"There are limitations about where you can find that kind of money," Gilbert said.
But 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.
While state law does give the governor "unallotment" authority to trim budgets in emergencies, Robinson said, "the triggers for this statute were not met."
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.
Today's appeal was by Pawlenty, who contested a late December judge's ruling saying he made some of his $2.7 billion in cuts unconstitutionally. That threw into question his entire budget-balancing action.
The Dec. 30 court ruling only dealt with a $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 also will sue.
Since the summer's unallotment, the budget deficit has grown by another $994 million. The state constitution requires a balanced budget.
Chief Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin ruled at the end of December that Pawlenty usurped legislative power by making cuts right after a new budget began last July 1. She indicated that Pawlenty did not meet the law's criteria of only making cuts when an unexpected fund shortage appeared.
At issue is a temporary restraining order Gearin issued last month requiring the Pawlenty administration to continue to pay for the diet program.
The suit was brought by six people who received the special diet aid, including Debra Branley, 56, of St. Louis County. Most were from the Twin Cities area.
Pawlenty ordered funding to the program restored the day after Gearin's ruling, the same day he said he would appeal.
Pawlenty's cuts included $1.8 billion in delaying state payments to public schools, $300 million from state payments to local governments, $236 million in trimming state agencies and $100 million spending for state colleges and universities.