Mpls, St. Paul, League of Cities on unallotment: Don’t be absurd

Toward the end of its anti-unallotment amicus brief, the League of Minnesota Cities and other municipal entities makes this pitch: If there are two ways to interpret a statute, and one of them is absurd, choose the other.

Sound reasonable?  Sure. But it could also be trouble for a key argument that Gov. Pawlenty’s legal team has been using to defend his use of unallotment power at the end of the 2009 session.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Pawlenty legal team has relied fairly heavily on a state statute that specifies: “the letter of the law shall not be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing the spirit.”

The idea, and the suggested application in this case, is that the statute that created unallotment doesn’t specify when during a biennium the unallotment power can be used and says little about what constitute an “unanticipated” shortfall in revenues. So it’s not for courts or anyone else to interpet limitations into the law that aren’t specified.

In reply, the city brief notes Minnesota Statute 645.17, which offers direct guidance to those seeking to ascertain the legislative intent behind a law, and the number one rule is:

(1) the legislature does not intend a result that is absurd…

The city brief also locates a 2001 Minnesota case in which ruled that courts should not construe a statute to lead to an absurd result if the language will reasonably permit another construction.

In the case before the court, Attorneys Thomas Grundhoefer and Susan Naughton, who wrote the city brief, argue that the expansive interpretation of the unallotment power that Team Pawlenty has embraced could lead to some pretty absurd results. If the governor can decide entirely on his own what constitutes an unanticipated shortfall of revenue sufficient to activate his unallotment powers, a governor could start unallotting “based on any type of report demonstrating a decline in receipts by as little as $1.” If there are no restrictions on what the governor can unallot, the governor could cancel an appropriation after the Legislature passed it, he vetoed it, and the Legislature overrode his veto. That would seem to reduce the Legislature to little more than an advisory body where spending is concerned.

But here’s the big one. Is it reasonable, or is it absurd to believe that when the Legislature created the unallotment power (remember, this power isn’t in the state Constitution, it was enacted by the Legislature in 1939) that its intent was to make itself irrelevant to taxing and spending decisions during economic downturns and to remove from itself any influence over the governor’s policy preferences? The city brief says no.

“Finally, it is truly absurd to think that the legislature would have ever intended to relinquish its constitutional power of appropriation to the executive branch at the beginning of the biennium when there has simply been a breakdown in budget negotiations.”

The city brief goes over a number of by now familiar arguments, but, as above, it puts them in the context of suggesting to the Supreme Court that the court is empowered to choose between an expansive interpretation of the unallotment power (which this brief argues leads to absurd consequences) or a narrow interpretation, which would support the lower court ruling that Pawlenty’s 2009 unallotments were improper because they bypassed the obvious and more normal alternatives of continuing to work with the Legislature to balance the budget.

The city brief was sponsored by the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the League of Minnesota Cities, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, Metro Cities and Minnesota Association of Small Cities. They have a stake in the case because $192 million of the 2009 unallotments reduced funds that the cities would otherwise have received from the state. According to the brief, Minneapolis would have had to lay off 25 police officers (although 15 of them were hired back through the use of one-time federal funds) and 30 other Police Department employees. Minneapolis took a $3 million unallotment in the Public Works budget, effecting street maintenance and even “pothole repair.” St. Paul lost 22 police officer positions, the brief says and it gives examples of the blow to small cities from unallotment.

Here’s the brief’s final summary of its argument:

“Given the current state budget crises and continuing acrimony between the executive and legislative branches of government, there is reason to suspect that this will not be the last time the parameters of the governor’s unallotment authority will be tested. It is City Amici’s firm position that the unallotment statute should not be misinterpreted – contrary to its plain language and legislative intent – to allow the governor to bypass constructive negotiation with the legislature to address a budget deficit that affects all Minnesotans.

The unallotments at issue in this appeal violated the plain language and the legislative intent of the unallotment statute. The unallotment statute must be narrowly construed because it is an exception to the legislature’s constitutional power of appropriation. A narrow construction of the unallotment statute that requires unallotment determinations to be objectively reasonable is consistent with its legislative intent, and it is good public policy, For all of these reasons, City Amici respectfully request that this Court affirm the district court’s decision.”

 

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Bob Vose on 02/23/2010 - 05:01 pm.

    Thanks for the timely updates concerning the briefs being filed. On appeal, all parties are treating this as a case primarily about statutory interpretation. All recognize that the S. Ct. may want to avoid a constitutional issue and resolve the case on the statute. But, despite noting that the statute has been held constitutional, the district court decision apparently rests solely on a constitutional sep. of powers analysis. The decision doesn’t offer any statutory interpretation analysis. The parties filing briefs don’t seem to even be sure whether the court found the statute to be ambiguous. It’s an odd posture on appeal.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/23/2010 - 06:59 pm.

    So, how many briefs does it take to change one governor?

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/24/2010 - 07:47 am.

    There are days (not many, mind you, but a few) when I think it might have been fun to be a lawyer. This brief argument might well represent one of them. A clever, and perhaps more important, ethically consistent line of thinking that – for me, at least – is persuasive.

  4. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 02/24/2010 - 06:30 pm.

    Will the Supreme Court also take into consideration that the governor CREATED much of the so-called “unanticipated” shortfall by (1) refusing to roll back the 1999-2000 tax cuts for our wealthiest citizens at a cost of $1 billion per year in revenue and (2) vetoing the legislature’s revenue bill?

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