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State's budget in hands of Supreme Court

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Chief Justice Eric Magnuson
Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson during oral arguments in the Minnesota Judicial Center in St. Paul, Minn. on March 15, 2010. The Supreme Court was hearing arguments in the lawsuit against Gov. Tim Pawlenty's unallotment usage to balance the state budget.
AP Pool Photo/Richard Sennott

A case that could have a big impact on the state's budget situation is now in the hands of the Minnesota Supreme Court. 

The seven Supreme Court justices conducted a spirited session Monday, hearing oral arguments  on whether Gov. Pawlenty crossed a constitutional line into legislative turf when he used his unallotment authority to unilaterally cut spending last July to balance the state's budget.

Right from the start, the justices didn't give the attorneys any time to argue their case. Instead, they peppered the attorneys with questions on several themes. 

Those themes included the intent of the unallotment statute, the timing of Pawlenty's action, whether the governor overstepped his authority and whether the law is constitutional.

Chief Justice Eric Magnuson was the first to question intent -- asking whether Pawlenty crossed the line when he cut some programs but not others.

"Why isn't the unallotment statute, which appears to me to place no limits at all on the executive's ability to second-guess that judgment, who gets the money, when they get it and how much they get it?" said Magnuson. "If you look at what the governor did, he just said 'These people don't get any. Never.' Why isn't that pure legislative authority?"

Solicitor General Alan Gilbert, who represents the State of Minnesota and the governor's office, said the governor had to take quick action because of the deep budget deficit. 

Galen Robinson
Galen Robinson, a lawyer from Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance during oral arguments in the Minnesota Judicial Center in St Paul, Mn.
AP Pool Photo/Richard Sennott

Pawlenty and DFL legislative leaders were at odds over the best way to erase a $2.7 billion budget deficit. Pawlenty agreed to accept all of the spending bills the Legislature sent to him, but vetoed the tax bill that paid for the spending.

Pawlenty, in a process known as unallotment, unilaterally cut spending. Gilbert said the governor was within his authority.

"There's a political dispute. We're dealing here with the aftermath of it," said Gilbert. "And the question is, what do we do with the aftermath?"

Gilbert said it's up to the voters to decide whether Pawlenty overstepped his authority. But Chief Justice Magnuson shot back that the court's role is to interpret the constitutionality of the law. 

Galen Robinson, who brought the suit on behalf of six low-income Minnesotans who rely on a special food program, said Pawlenty's decision to cut some programs but not others crossed the line. 

Robinson said the Minnesota Constitution requires the governor to faithfully execute the laws. He  said by accepting the spending bills, Pawlenty accepted the responsibility to carry out those laws. 

Solicitor General Alan Gilbert
Solicitor General Alan Gilbert during oral arguments in the Minnesota Judicial Center in St Paul, Mn.
AP Photo/Star Tribune/Richard Sennott

"This statute is subject to the whim or the caprice of the executive branch. That's what happened in this case," said Robinson. "On one day, I'm going to pass this law. Moments later I'm not going to follow it."

Several members of the court focused on the unallotment statute itself, and the power it gives to the governor. Attorneys for the state argued that the governor clearly followed the path set out in the unallotment statute. 

For example, the top finance official recognized the state budget was running a deficit and allowed for Pawlenty to cut spending. Justice Lorie Gildea suggested there were limits in place in the law to prevent the governor from crossing a constitutional line. 

"There are standards -- now you would say they are not strict enough standards -- but there are standards in the statute to guide the executive's exercise of discretion," said Gildea. "I would suggest to you that there are certainly standards here to meet this court's case law."

It isn't clear what the court will do. Justice Paul Anderson, for example, at times questioned the authority given to a governor under the statute. But later in the hearing, he told the lawyer suing the state that the court sets a high bar when it comes to ruling a law unconstitutional.

"The stakes are high. You here are a respondent, which is nice, but you have a big hill to climb on this unconstitutional issue," said Anderson.

The legal dispute has the potential to make an already difficult budget situation much worse. If the court rules Pawlenty overstepped his authority, the decision could add $2.7 billion to the state's nearly $1 billion deficit in the current two-year budget cycle.   

The court took the matter under advisement, but is expected to rule quickly since the court took Gov. Pawlenty's appeal on an expedited basis.