I’m not a lawyer. Aside from some basic principles I’ve picked up from business law and life in general along the way, I can’t tell you how judges think about complex issues. Nevertheless I kind of predicted the recent Minnesota Supreme Court decision regarding Gov. Mark Dayton’s line-item veto of the legislative budget.
Republicans who are in control of the Minnesota Legislature initially passed a number of budget and education bills (10 in all) that Dayton quickly vetoed. After Republicans failed to negotiate budget legislation that Dayton would sign during the regular legislative session, they made a “deal” with the governor during a special session. Dayton called the special session, and the Legislature passed the negotiated bills, but Republicans added a bunch of stuff they had agreed not to add into the final tax bill. Dayton has successfully used his veto authority several times during his administration. In order to inoculate against a veto, Republicans built in a provision that would eliminate funding for the Department of Revenue should Dayton veto the entire bill. Dayton then line-item vetoed the legislative budget instead of the whole tax bill, and Republicans took Dayton to court claiming that this line-item veto was unconstitutional.
Most observers predicted that Dayton’s veto would go down in flames, but I argued that the Republican attempt to end-run Dayton’s constitutional veto power was merely offset by Dayton’s line-item veto. I had hoped that the court would essentially find a way to stay out of it, and make the executive and legislative branches go back to the drawing board, as it were.
Process clearly laid out
The Constitution clearly lays out a process for making law, and that process does not provide for clever-by-half attempts at veto-proof legislation. The process is clear, and gives both the executive and the Legislature a clear role. Legislators pass the bills; the governor signs or vetoes them. The constitutional remedy for vetoes is a vote to override the veto with two-thirds majority. If legislators can’t override the veto, the legislation does not become law. The whole point of this is to get laws passed via compromise and negotiation rather than brute force. In this case, Republicans — frustrated by Dayton’s previous vetoes, and lacking the votes to override — tried to circumvent the normal legislative process by designing a bill Dayton could not veto. When Dayton responded with a clever tactic of his own, it went to court.
This is not how legislation is supposed work; legislators don’t get to make “veto-proof” legislation. The idea of veto-proof legislation effectively eliminates the executive’s role in passing or signing bills into law. This was a legislative attempt to impose law, not pass it, as the Minnesota Constitution requires.
Furthermore, this was part of the state budget, and the Constitution clearly makes the budget the responsibility of the Legislature and the governor, not the courts. Instead of trying to “fix” the legislation, or rule in favor of unconstitutional (i.e. “veto-proof”) legislation, the Minnesota Supreme Court basically found a way to say: “Look, this is your mess, you sort it out.” The court ruled that Dayton’s veto is constitutional, and then ordered Dayton and the Legislature to do what they’re supposed to do in the first place — negotiate a tax bill that Dayton can either sign or veto.
Preserves constitutional balance
This is the only ruling that could have preserved constitutional balance. By requiring mediation the court is basically telling everyone to go back and do their jobs the way they’re supposed to do their jobs. If the justices had simply ruled against Dayton (as the lower courts had) they would have stripped the executive of the only real leverage he or she has when faced with unacceptable legislation. If they had simply reversed the ruling and declared an executive power to defund another branch of government, they would have torn up our checks and balances. This ruling also keeps the court within its own constitutional silo by keeping it out of the budget process.
In the end, this isn’t actually a constitutional crisis because all we really have here is stupid legislative practice. Had Republicans simply stuck with the norms of constitutional legislation they wouldn’t have crafted a bill that would end up in the courts in the first place; that’s easy enough to avoid in the future. All everyone has to do is remember how legislation becomes law in Minnesota, and not try to find a different way to force legislation into law without the necessary votes. It’s silly and irresponsible to pass important legislation you know the governor won’t sign unless you have the votes to override a veto. There is no work-around in the democratic process.
Paul Udstrand is a local writer and photographer with a blog: “Thoughtful Bastards.”
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