There are real people — often poor, and often with severe health problems — behind all those state budget numbers.
This afternoon, a handful of those who will start feeling the impact Monday of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s unallotment decisions filed suit in Ramsey County District Court seeking an injunction to halt the cutbacks in two state programs.
Their claim: The governor’s use of unallotment violates state law and the state’s Constitution.
Their hope: That the court prevents the departments of Management and Budget, Human Services and Revenue from going forward with the cutbacks.
This actually is the second suit filed out of Pawlenty’s actions at the conclusion of the session.
In July, Bob Carney, a candidate for Minneapolis mayor, sued, claiming that Pawlenty could not eliminate a state tax refund for political contributions. This suit boils down to one of definitions: Carney insists that the money that goes back to those making contributions is like a tax refund; the administration says the program is a rebate, not a refund.
The suit filed Thursday strikes to the heart of all the big issues surrounding the end-of-session dramatics.
Legal issue: Did governor overstep?
The key legal point centers on the state’s unallotment statute, which allows the governor to use that authority in cases of “un-anticipated” budget shortfalls.
But months before Pawlenty played the unallotment card in this budget showdown with the DFL-controlled Legislature, he and his commissioners knew there was going to be a budget shortfall.
Additionally, unlike unallotments in the past, which came in the middle of a biennium, Pawlenty used unallotment at the start of the budget-balancing process, completely bypassing the traditional approach of moving to a special legislative session to resolve problems.
Recall that last spring, the Legislature did pass a balanced budget. That budget, which was rushed through the Legislature in the closing minutes of the session, included a combination of cuts and tax increases to balance a $2.7 billion hole. The budget, however, was quickly vetoed by the governor, who already had signed a number of appropriations bills that would have required tax increases to support.
It was classic showdown politics, with DFL legislators passing a budget bill they knew the governor would reject. The Republican governor did reject the bill, but then, instead of negotiating, used his powers of line-item vetoes and unallotment to reshape the budget.
Health, human service programs lose most
The result: Health and human service programs were a big loser, as the governor unalloted $236 million. This came in addition to his line-item veto of $300 million in the general-assistance health care program for the state’s poorest.
Depending on your point of view, there were cheers or jeers over who won the political gamesmanship.
Behind those political power games, though, are real people who are on the verge of losing real dollars that are vital to maintaining their health and keeping a roof over their head, they say in their suit.
Two relatively small state programs are being targeted in the suit filed today by Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance on behalf of six people, who are seeking class-action status.
Although these programs have limited effect, winning this case could have a broader impact on the governor’s unprecedented use of his unallotment powers. If these plaintiffs win, others will surely follow their path to the courts.
Start with the case of the governor’s unallotment of a $5.3 million supplemental dietary assistance program. That program affects those who typically live on federal Supplemental Security Income with special, health-related dietary needs and need a doctor’s prescription. They have received state assistance, in addition to an $81-a-month stipend provided by the state under federal mandate.
Example: Deanna Brayton, 49, is disabled by multiple health problems: autoimmune disorder, rheumatoid arthritis, degenerative disc disease, osteoporosis, underactive thyroid, irritable bowel syndrome, traumatic brain injury. She has undergone 47 surgeries since being involved in a severe car accident — not her fault, she says — more than a decade ago. She also suffers from migraine headaches, anxiety and a host of other problems.
The Anoka County woman tries to do the best she can with her health by maintaining a doctor-prescribed low-cholesterol, lactose- and gluten-free diet.
“The foods I need always cost more,” she says. “Go down the aisle of the store for diabetics and you’ll get a sense of the difference in cost.”
Brayton would love to work.
“It would be great, but I can’t,” she says. “I’m totally disabled.”
Her only sources of monthly income are $674 in Supplemental Security Income and the Minnesota Supplemental Aid income of $415, which includes that $81 federally mandated check and $334 from the state’s supplemental aid program. She also receives $16 a month in food support benefits. She currently spends about $400 a month on food.
Her grand totals: $1,221 in expenses, $1,089 in income, meaning she’s always delaying payments to one creditor while catching up with another.
The state cut she faces means a loss of $334. She received notice last week that, as of Monday, she will no longer receive that amount.
“I try to think positive,” she said, “but I honestly don’t know what I’ll do. I feel like I’m backed into a corner with no way out.”
Understand, she says, she did not choose her health conditions. Understand, too, the supplemental aid has not been hers simply for the asking. Each year she receives a form from the county that requires her physician to spell out her special dietary needs. That form is returned to the county and then the state.
The five others in the suit have similarly desperate stories. And their stories can be multiplied by thousands of people across the state.
“I wonder if Gov. Pawlenty understands who the people are who rely on this,” she said.
A renter property tax refund program, which was unilaterally reduced by the governor, also is included in the suit.
This state program, aimed at low- and middle-income people, has given renters whose income is low compared with their rent, a 19 percent state refund on their rent. (This is based on the notion that landlords pass property taxes on to their renters through higher rents.) In balancing the budget, the governor reduced the cost of the program by reducing the amount of the refund from 19 percent to 15 percent, a savings to the state of $50.8 million.
“The defendants [the Pawlenty administration] do not have a constitutional authority to unilaterally amend a statutory provision,” the suit contends. “… Only the Legislature has the authority to amend a state statute.”
It should be noted that at the time of the unallotments and line-item vetoes, the governor said he was simply trying to put Minnesota’s social services budget in line with other states. And though there was considerable grumbling among DFLers that Pawlenty had stretched his unallotment authority too far, the governor said that his legal advisers had assured him he was acting within the scope of the law.
But Galen Robinson, litigation director of Mid Minnesota Legal Assistance, questions that.
“The two branches have a responsibility to work together to resolve problems,” Robinson said. “The governor can call the Legislature back into special session to resolve disputes and finish legislation. He chose not to do this, although there was time to do so. By acting unilaterally, he attempted to deprive the Legislature of its constitutionally mandated role in the lawmaking process. The unallotment statute was not enacted to permit that.”
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.