First suit filed challenging Pawlenty unallotment decisions

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.”

Limited resources
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.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 10/29/2009 - 10:09 pm.

    “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 five others in the suit have similarly desperate stories. And their stories can be multiplied by thousands of people across the state.”

    Ms. Brayton is certainly an example of why we need a “safety net”, but it seems unlikely that there are thousands of Minnesotans with these multiple health problems. My gosh, it seems lucky that she is living. Perhaps our safety net should provide more for people like Ms. Brayton and less for people with only one thing wrong with them rather than the “one size fits all” or “you either get benefits or you don’t” system that we seem to have now. This story also goes to show how Health and Human Services money may be wisely spent as opposed to big TVs for treatment facilities…

  2. Submitted by Herbert Davis on 10/30/2009 - 07:29 am.

    Rest assured that Pawlenty knows who suffers from his unalottment decisions, he also knows how much they will suffer. He cares much more about making himself acceptable to the rich and greedy and hopes they will help promote him on his quest for public recognition.

    He is demonstrating how far the so callled “christians” will go to save zygotes and protect the rich from progressive taxation. They will gladly give tax money to the rich for stadiums but abhore,”redistribution”! Not exactly the “christianity” of my childhood!

    The acceptance by the church leaders is amazing!

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/30/2009 - 11:20 am.

    I’m pleased that a legal test has been called for. At least we are assured of a rational, fact based investigation.

    Anecdotal hardship stories make for great sound bites, but they are not evidence; if they were, I’m sure the Governor could gather millions of heartfelt stories of what damage a tax increase would do to real families struggling to make ends meet.

  4. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 10/30/2009 - 12:19 pm.

    Mr. Swift has introduced a straw man. There were not tax increases planned for anyone who was having trouble makings ends meet; these were increases for those whose ends have long since been met.

    It’s a clever Republican strategy to group all tax increases together, thus scaring the poor while protecting the rich. But the truth is we have a progressive tax system, and when Democrats propose tax increases, they almost always suggest making it more progressive by waging the increases on those who can easily afford them.

  5. Submitted by Kevin Watterson on 10/30/2009 - 03:57 pm.

    Mr. Klein has introduced a falsity. There in fact were several tax increases planned for people having trouble making ends meet (the DFL’s gas tax, sales tax and license tab fee increases of 2008 notwithstanding). Some of these tax increases included: across-the-board income tax increases, sales tax increases in every county, a new tax on iTunes downloads, alcohol taxes (highly regressive), cigarette taxes (again highly regressive) and more. These are in addition to yanking tax credits/deductions for mortgage interest, K-12 education expenses, child care, dependent care, property taxes and charitable contributions.

    I highly doubt those who would have been affected by the above tax increases constitute those whose ends have long since been met.

  6. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 10/30/2009 - 05:04 pm.

    You know perfectly well that if left to their own devices, Democrats would do everything possible to wage the taxes on the rich. If they are forced to hit everyone, it’s only because their arms are twisted by conservatives.

    Tax money is used to provide for everyone but comes more from the pockets of the rich; higher taxes in general, and specifically more progressive higher taxes are to the benefit of the poor. A low income person might be paying a few hundred dollars in taxes after rebates. Republicans pretend they’re helping this person by saving them a $50 tax increase, because that will help them “make ends meet”. Yeah right. They are then forced to slash every program – from medicaid to public transportation – that this poor person relies on. That’s much worse.

    You can’t have it both ways. Either taxes are an evil commie plot to redistribute wealth – which is obviously to the benefit of the poor – or they’re not. Which is it?

  7. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/30/2009 - 06:03 pm.

    “Either taxes are an evil commie plot to redistribute wealth – which is obviously to the benefit of the poor – or they’re not. Which is it?”

    Neither.

    When levied for any purpose not specifically targeted and codified in law (see “the general fund”), taxes are a Democrat plot to grow government. “Help the poor” are nothing more than a jaded bit of sloganeering.

    That is why Democrats hate “fees” so much…it’s much too hard to redistribute a fee towards a bureaucrat ridden, pork barrel social project if people are expecting the roads they paid to have repaired to actually get repaired.

  8. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 10/30/2009 - 08:40 pm.

    I suggest you explain that to someone on Medicaid.

  9. Submitted by Andrew Zabilla on 10/31/2009 - 12:09 am.

    Mr. Watterson, I’ll remind you that the gas tax was supported by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, definitely NOT a pro-tax organization. They supported it because congestion and poor road conditions add costs to businesses that transport goods and services across our roads in the form of wasted time in traffic as well as increased repairs from pot holes and accidents caused by unsafe roadways. The fact that only a handful of Republicans listened to the business community in this issue hardly makes it a DFL tax. In addition, this tax was targeted specifically toward bettering our transportation structure, something I certainly support and from Mr. Swift’s comments, since it is a targeted fee, I’m sure he would support as well.

    Mr. Swift, while I certainly have different opinions about how the government should be run than the DFL, saying that they have an agenda merely to grow the government is a bit of rhetoric, don’t you think? I’m quite aware that Unions (government ones especially) tend toward the democratic side when it’s time to vote, but asserting that the DFL’s agenda is merely to grow government for this purpose is a bit too conspiracy-theory oriented, I think.

    What we have to realize is that none of this is so cut and dried as to be “less taxes is good” or “more services are good.”

    There is a certain cost-benefit relationship to all of this. Take for example the Northstar rail line. Yes, it will lose money every year (as do roads in MN) but at the same time, it will take a number of cars off the road, reducing congestion, wear and tear on our existing roads and likely reducing accidents which require support personnel in the form of police officers, fire fighters and EMTs.

    I do think that there has to be a much more objective way of determining who receives benefits. I have no sympathy for those who are able to work but choose not to, but I feel that we have a moral obligation to take care of those who are unable to take care of themselves. I’m not certain how we could do this in a way without creating more government bureaucracy, but I honestly feel that some form of review for benefits (including welfare and section 8) should take place and those benefits should be assigned on an individual basis. Having said that, again, there are costs associated with not providing services. For example: If you take away health insurance for low income persons, then when they go to the hospital ER, those costs will be passed along to the insured in the form of higher premiums and/or reduced quality of service.

    In the end it comes down to value – Return On Investment or ROI as we call it in the business world. Unfortunately it seems that neither the DFL or Republicans can get far enough past the rhetoric and party lines to discuss on a logical level what makes the most sense for Minnesota. I keep hoping this will change, but I also keep buy lottery tickets. I feel the odds for both are about the same.

  10. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/31/2009 - 07:03 am.

    @ Andrew, A thoughtful and well written comment. ROI should be the outcome we would hope for as it relates to good governance. It should be a very reasonable expectation. As an aside, your humorous analogy using the lottery really tickled. Too funny……

  11. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 11/01/2009 - 11:22 am.

    It does seem to me that conservative rhetoric has gotten more and more conspiracy-minded lately. There are strange reasons presented for why people do things.

    It used to be liberals wanted to raise taxes because they were sissy bleeding-hearts who wanted to redistribute wealth to the weak. At least that was somewhat accurate. Now, it’s that they want to raise taxes, to increase government, because… well… I don’t know. I guess apparently we just love government for its own sake. It doesn’t even make any sense.

    It’s just like the climate change theory that scientists are pulling a hoax on everyone. Why? So they can get more grant money… to fake more studies… to get more grant money… to grow government because they like big government. I just can’t figure out how this explanation makes sense to anyone.

    You’d think of everyone the free-market crowd could do a better job of understanding what motivates people.

  12. Submitted by Bill Longaecker on 11/02/2009 - 01:37 pm.

    If a group can sue the Governor for programs cut by the unallotment, can we sue the government employee unions and education unions for making the State spend too much?

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