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UPDATE: Pawlenty loses unallotment case

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By Don Davis

Forum State Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Supreme Court says Gov. Tim Pawlenty was wrong when he made unilateral budget cuts last summer.

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The ruling, released this morning, technically only a covers a $5.3 million program that provided special diets to Minnesotans who could not afford the food ordered by doctors, but the governor's first assessment is that the 47-page document throws out most of his $2.7 billion budget-balancing action from last summer.

"We conclude the unallotment at issue here exceeded the scope of the statutory authority," Chief Justice Eric Magnuson said in writing for the court's majority.

Unallotment is a law that allows the governor to cut budgets in emergency situations when there is not enough revenue to cover state expenses.

The 4-3 decision threw the Minnesota Capitol into a state of confusion as lawmakers, lobbyists and others tried to figure out its ramifications.

Regardless the court decision, Pawlenty said, the state budget must be cut.

"The funds simply do not exist to reinstall this unallotment decision," Pawlenty said at noon.

The Republican governor asked the Democratic-controlled Legislature to formally approve the unallotment decisions he made last summer, something unlikely to happen.

In his summer budget-balancing decision, Pawlenty delayed $1.8 billion in payments to school districts. He also cut $200 million via executive actions that are not affected by the court ruling.

That leaves $700 million in program cuts that lawmakers and Pawlenty still need to consider.

Pawlenty asked lawmakers to approve his school payment delays, as he said has been done during past budget problems.

The state's two-year budget is about $30 billion.

The governor said he planned to invite legislative leaders to a meeting later today. They might not know the full impact of the ruling when they meet.

"What this means ... will be sorted out in the coming hours and days," Pawlenty said.

One question that remained unanswered was whether Pawlenty could just take the same unallotment steps if lawmakers do not balance the budget before they adjourn for the year in a week and a half.

Pawlenty said he feared that the Ramsey County judge who made the original decision may be forced to make budget decisions as more groups that lost state money in the unallotments file lawsuits.

The last thing Minnesota needs is to have the budget decided by the judge, he said.

The ruling threw into question all kinds of legislation, ranging from a proposal to build a new Vikings football stadium to reforming health care programs.

Democrats were quick to say that the ruling proved that Pawlenty's "unallotment" overstepped his power.

"Once again, the courts have affirmed that Gov. Pawlenty acted unconstitutionally by walking away from the table and turning his back on the legislature and the people of Minnesota during a challenging budget crisis," said House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who is running for governor.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said the Republican governor now needs to work with the Legislature to balance the budget. "Now the task falls to the Legislature and governor to do what our constitution requires, and what Minnesotans elected us to do: find common ground, and together solve the state's budget crisis."

"Today, Tim Pawlenty's overreach was overthrown by the enduring principles of democratic governance," Winkler said. "The checks and balances created by our constitution have again tipped the balance back in favor of the people of Minnesota."

Pawlenty and legislative leaders say they want to pass a balanced budget by the time lawmakers go home for the year on May 17.

In March, the state's attorneys told seven high court justices 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.

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.

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.

A Dec. 30 district court ruling that the high court now has upheld 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.

Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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