Pawlenty's power to cut state budget lands in court

A Ramsey County District Court judge is considering whether she should temporarily reverse budget cuts made by Gov. Pawlenty.

Six low-income Minnesotans are asking the court to continue funding for their dietary needs, despite Pawlenty's claim that he had the authority to cut funding for the program. The lawsuit challenges whether Pawlenty had the legal authority to unilaterally cut spending and lawmakers at the Capitol are also weighing in.

Ramsey County District Court Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin started the hearing with a word of warning to the packed courtroom. She said cases that question the actions of a separate branch of government -- in this case the governor's office -- are "cases the court wants to tread lightly on."

The plaintiff's attorney, Galen Robinson, said his clients have been harmed by Gov. Pawlenty's budget cuts. In July, Pawlenty acted alone to erase a $2.7 billion projected budget deficit by cutting spending and shifting payments. He took the action -- known as unallotment -- after he couldn't reach a budget deal with the DFL controlled Legislature.

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Robinson told the court and reporters after the hearing that Pawlenty's decision to cut spending overstepped his authority as governor because he had plenty of time to work with lawmakers to resolve their budget stalemate.

"It is for the court to determine whether or not the law has been followed ..."

"It's not for the courts to tell the governor and Legislature what to do. That would be a political question and the courts can't do it," Robinson said. "It is for the court to determine whether or not the law has been followed and it's our hope that the court looks at that and makes a decision based on that. If the court makes that decision, it's up to the other two branches to resolve that problem."

Robinson wants the court to temporarily reinstate the $5.3 million funding for the dietary program until the matter is resolved in court. But an attorney for Pawlenty and Minnesota's solicitor general argue that the entire case should be thrown out.

Pawlenty's attorney, Patrick Robben, told the judge that Pawlenty followed the law when he cut spending on his own. He said the state is in "a time of unprecedented economic issues" and Pawlenty had to take the action to balance the books.

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said after the hearing that granting the temporary restraining order would only be an invitation for other groups to ask for similar relief.

"If the court were to turn on funding for that, the danger is that over the long run the court is going to be setting the state budget out of the courtroom when that is a function that should be left the Legislature and the governor," McClung said.

Gearin didn't specify when she would make a decision but did say she expected an appeal. She joked that she's "merely a way station on the road to the Appellate Courts."

Just before the hearing began a Minnesota House committee was debating the same issues.

The DFL-controlled House Rules committee approved a resolution on a 14 to 8 party-line vote that authorizes a "friend of the court" brief supporting the legal challenge.

DFL leaders say they believe the governor overstepped his authority, and they insist the brief is not partisan or political. Rep. Steve Simon of St. Louis Park said it's a limited and reasonable response.

"We're not seeking to intervene here as a party," Simon said. "So we get the benefits of having our voice heard on an important issue that bears on separation of powers. But we don't bear the burdens of litigation. We're not subject to subpoena."

Republicans took issue with the nonpartisan claims. Rep. Bob Gunther, of Fairmont, said he was concerned that nonpartisan research staff was being asked to write the supporting legal document.

"Last I heard, Gov. Pawlenty is a Republican," Gunther said. "And last I heard, the minority on this committee and in the Legislature are Republicans. You're trying to tell me this is not political? I beg to differ with you. It's absolutely partisan. It's absolutely political."

The Minnesota Senate has decided not to weigh in on the matter. DFL Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller said he agrees that Pawlenty overstepped his authority but said the Senate's concentration is on the state's ongoing fiscal mess.