Democrats continue criticism of Pawlenty's cuts

DFL House and Senate leaders have formally condemned Gov. Tim Pawlenty's plan to erase a $2.7 billion budget deficit through unilateral spending cuts and accounting shifts.

They passed a resolution Tuesday calling the Republican governor's plan unwise and not in the interest of the state's fiscal health. But neither the statement nor legislators have any power to stop the cuts, which begin taking effect on Wednesday.

Democrats didn't need any more reasons to dislike Gov. Pawlenty's budget fix, but State Economist Tom Stinson provided one anyway. Stinson told members of the Legislative Advisory Commission that as many as 4,700 public and private jobs will be lost during the next two years under the governor's action, using his executive authority known as unallotment.

DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher said Pawlenty's use of that power to go it alone on the budget is wrong. Kelliher can't stop the governor, but she's promising a bill next session that would prevent an unallotment repeat.

"This has been a move that I believe is out of step and illegal in many aspects," Kelliher said. "We will maybe never know if it is not challenged in court. But I do think the Legislature must retain the power the Legislature has to change the law."

Kelliher's questions about the governor's legal standing were repeated by several legislators. DFL Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm said he's concerned about losing more jobs when there are some signs that the economy might be improving. Tomassoni said the governor should hold off on unallotment until the next economic forecast comes out in November.

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"I would hope that if the governor doesn't decide to at least wait until the November forecast that somebody initiates a lawsuit so that we can put an injunction on these delays," he said. "Because there is no indication right now that this particular unallotment action is necessary at this time."

Hospitals, nursing homes and other groups have said they're looking at their legal options to see whether they can stop the cuts in the courts, but none has sued yet.

Tomassoni and other Democrats spent two hours grilling Pawlenty administration officials about the unallotment plan and its impact on jobs, public school funding and local property taxes.

Before the hearing, a group of religious leaders gathered outside the Capitol to voice their concerns about cuts to health and human services programs. The Reverend Peg Chemberlin of the Minnesota Council of Churches said those cuts will have a disproportionate effect on the poor.

"Churches all over the state work with shelters and food shelves," Chemberlin said. "We know people who are being hurt already, having a very difficult time in this economic time. And the governor is getting ready to abandon many of them, take away their health care. What happens then? Then people leave it to the very last minute, and I think lives are on the line."

Chemberlin said she didn't expect the demonstration to change Gov. Pawlenty's mind. DFL leaders had similarly low expectations, even after approving a strongly-worded but toothless resolution against the cuts.

Pawlenty's top finance official, Management and Budget Commissioner Tom Hanson, said the resolution won't deter the unallotment process from moving ahead. Hanson says he's also confident the action would withstand any legal challenge.

"We are confident because we have read the statutes," Hanson said. "We've looked at the precedent and we have looked at how the unallotment law has been applied and the purposes of the statute and we are well within our bounds."

Hanson said his department is preparing a timeline that will illustrate which spending cuts will be made and when. He says legislators will still have an opportunity to alter some of the cuts next session.