Judge rules against Pawlenty on budget cuts

Gov Pawlenty announces budget cuts
Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced more than $2.7 billion in budget cuts he was making through a process called unallotment, during a news conference June 16, 2009. A Ramsey County judge Thursday ruled that Pawlenty's actions were unconstitutional.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

A Minnesota judge has ordered the state to reinstate money for a food program that Gov. Tim Pawlenty cut from the budget, saying he acted unconstitutionally.

Six low-income Minnesotans had asked the court to continue funding a $5.3 million program that helps pay for their dietary needs. The lawsuit challenges whether Pawlenty had the constitutional authority to unilaterally cut spending.

Ramsey County District Judge Kathleen Gearin granted their wish in an order issued on Wednesday. Her temporary restraining order keeps the money intact indefinitely.

Minnesota Supplemental Aid Special Diet Program helps low-income Minnesotans buy food required by a special diet, as prescribed by a doctor.

"When the governor cut the program, that was very hard," said Debra Branley, of Duluth, one of the plaintiffs. "For me, that was $350 a month. That's a lot of money."

Branley, 56, had been receiving the payments for about two years, following a kidney transplant that left her disabled. The program allowed her to buy high-protein foods and supplements recommended by her doctor.

She expressed anger about the cuts, and said that she cannot afford to buy groceries on her current income -- about $700 a month in Social Security disability payments and $21 in food assistance.

"The authority of the Governor to unallot is an authority intended to save the state in times of a previously unforeseen budget crisis."

"It's real easy to make cuts like that if you're living real well, you know, and you get a nice paycheck," Branley said. "I'd like to say to them, 'Here's 21 dollars for the month. This is what you have to live off of. Let's see how you're going to manage.'"

In a written ruling, Gearin said the governor misused an executive power known as unallotment. The power allows the governor to cut funding without legislative approval.

"The authority of the Governor to unallot is an authority intended to save the state in times of a previously unforeseen budget crisis," Gearin wrote in her ruling. "It is not meant to be used as a weapon by the executive branch to break a stalemate in budget negotiations with the Legislature, or to rewrite the appropriations bill."

The case stems from $2.7 billion in cuts the Republican governor announced this summer to balance the budget.

The governor's office issued a statement expressing disappointment in the judge's decision.

"We are weighing all of our options including appeal, reestablishing unallotments under the current forecast, potential legislative action, and other options," the statement said.

An attorney for Pawlenty had argued that the state would have trouble paying its bills if the administration lost, because others hit by cuts would see it as an invitation to file similar lawsuits.

Another part of the lawsuit contends that Pawlenty's cuts to the Renter Property Tax Refund program are also unconstitutional. Gearin did not address this charge in Wednesday's ruling.

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Galen Robinson, who is representing Branley and the others on the special diet program, said he's confident that Gearin's order is a signal that they'll be successful when the case goes to trial. Robinson also said it's possible that others could join the suit.

"I would expect that there will be some who may try to come in and say 'ours too' needs to be put back, but I think the other part of this is a lot of the amounts that were unalloted don't happen right away," Robinson said. "So you'll have to look which ones have already taken effect to try to determine who might be interested in coming in at this time."

A separate suit takes issue with the governor's unallotment of money for the state's Political Contribution Refund. The program provides a tax refund for donors to major party candidates.

The decision is a political blow for the governor. Pawlenty, who has not ruled out a run for the White House in 2012, has made his budget cutting a signature issue.

DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who is running for governor, said she hopes Pawlenty will now work more closely with the Legislature. "Based on Judge Gearin's order, it would be really well advised if the governor takes a more cooperative and problem solving approach," Kelliher said.

That may be easier said than done. The two sides have been at loggerheads over the best way to balance the budget. Pawlenty wants to erase the deficit by spending cuts alone, but Democrats say a balanced approach with spending cuts and tax increases is the best option.

The legislative session begins on February 4.

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