Democrats went into Thursday's meeting of the Legislative Advisory Commission with a list of questions they wanted answered about the governor's plan to erase a $2.7 billion budget deficit through spending cuts and accounting shifts.
They learned from one state official that the cuts will eliminate at least 3,150 jobs, but possibly thousands more. And their concerns about whether the Republican governor might be exceeding his authority were also addressed.
State Management and Budget Commissioner Tom Hanson repeatedly assured legislators that the governor can do what he's doing.
"The power to appropriate lies with the Legislature," Hanson said. "They've delegated in times of deficit this specific, what's outlined in this statute. So, we're confident in our legal authority."
The governor is using his emergency budget-balancing power, known as unallotment, after he and Democrats couldn't reach an overall budget deal before the end of the session. Pawlenty and other governors have used unallotment before for significantly smaller corrections at the end of a budget cycle.
DFL House Majority Leader Tony Sertich of Chisholm said Pawlenty is on shaky legal ground by using the power broadly and at the beginning of the biennium.
"We can get out a thesaurus and get cute with the words but I think a governor's authority is to cut," Sertich said. "We can call it delayed, deferred anything we want, but a governor's authority is to cut. And I think to go beyond that, at least in my personal opinion is to abuse the power of the executive branch."
Democrats are particularly concerned with Pawlenty's plan to delay payments to school districts and change the timing on when districts recognize local property tax revenues. The total savings to the state would be $1.8 billion.
DFL Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller of Minneapolis argued the governor can't make those kinds of moves without the Legislature's approval. Pogemiller warned Commissioner Hanson to reconsider.
"If you insist on trying to exert this authority, I guarantee you you're going need a legal memo," Pogemiller said. "This one is beyond the pale in my judgement as a former chair of the committee and as someone who has spoken very specifically about this with legal counsel. I have not yet talked to the attorney general's office. That's perhaps the next step."
Pogemiller said the commission will meet again later this month to continue the discussion with the governor's commissioners. No date was set.
Legislators cannot stop the cuts, which take effect July 1, but they can try to rewrite the law that allowed them.
DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher said she thinks several legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, are looking into the issue for the 2010 session. She said they've been studying the laws in other states that significantly limit the use of unallotment by a governor.
"The governor has gone further than anyone could have imagined the governor going in unallotment this year," Kelliher said. "With the size of the unallotment, ten times larger than any previous unallotment, as well as the scope of the authority he is using in a number of areas."
Kelliher said it's not yet clear if any of the groups hit hardest by the governor's cuts might try to challenge the unallotment in court. But she said representatives of some of those groups, whom she recently met with, might meet again next week to further discuss legal options.