Courts' role in deciding state spending is questioned

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Minnesota House of Representatives
The Minnesota House of Representatives, in a file photo from January 4, 2011.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

A Ramsey County judge will decide whether Minnesota should continue funding essential services if state government shuts down on July 1. Attorney General Lori Swanson filed a petition in court Monday asking a judge for authority to continue funding for services like prisons, the State Patrol and health care for the poor.

The filing is meant to preserve core government services if Gov. Dayton and GOP legislative leaders can't reach a budget deal. But some question whether the courts have a legitimate role in setting the budget.

Attorney General Swanson's petition to the Ramsey County Court is a key step in the process of ensuring that some government services will continue to run, even if state government shuts down.

Swanson said she filed the petition to make sure that prisoners stay behind bars, and very sick people and those living in state veterans homes continue to receive care.

"You can't just flip out the switch on those people and turn out the lights on July 1," she said.

Swanson said the petition is modeled after a plan put forward in 2005 by a judge, who decided which government services should continue running during a partial government shutdown that year.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said the Attorney General's petition is more sweeping than the 2005 ruling. Winkler said Swanson wants a judge to require funding of programs that the governor, state agencies, local units of government and others deem essential. A court-appointed referee would step in only if there were a dispute.

"This petition says each government unit can define for itself what a core function is, and they present a bill to the state, and the state has to pay it," said Winkler. "So this is putting a small check on how money would be spent."

Winkler, an attorney, also said he doesn't believe a judge should play a role in funding government services. He said those decisions should be left up to the GOP-controlled Legislature and Gov. Dayton.

"If you use the courts to fund government when the Legislature and the governor can't agree, all you're doing is enabling a dysfunctional government," said Winkler. "In the long run, our state is going to be worse off if we do not follow the requirement that the governor and Legislature need to come to agreement."

Winkler said Article 11 of the Minnesota Constitution is clear that the state can't spend money unless a law says it can. The state's fiscal year starts on July 1, and Dayton and the Legislature have failed to pass a complete budget into law. That means spending for most of government has not been authorized.

The two sides are $1.8 billion apart. Dayton wants to raise income taxes on Minnesota's top earners to erase the $5 billion projected budget deficit. Republicans argue that they can erase the deficit through spending cuts alone.

Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said he also has concerns about the constitutionality of allowing a judge to authorize spending. He said if the two sides can't reach an agreement on the overall budget in time, they should pass a stopgap bill that would keep government running.

"Having the governor and the Legislature agree to fund those things that are necessary to move the state forward, without a hardship to the citizens," said Thompson.

Attorney General Lori Swanson pointed to another portion of the Minnesota Constitution to argue that her action is constitutional.

"Article, Section 1 of the Minnesota Constitution says that the purpose of government is to exist for the security, benefit and protection of people. And that's what we're trying to effectuate to make sure that individual citizens have their rights to be protected."

Gov. Dayton released a statement saying his office would file its own petition to the court, along with its own list of critical services, this week.