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Minnesota House’s partisan committee vote on unallotment a prelude to the political fights to come

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, tried to chill the souls of his Republican colleagues.

At a meeting of the House Rules Committee early this morning, Juhnke asked if Republicans really wanted to see “Gov. [Tom] Rukavina with the power we saw this governor use?”

The eight Republicans on the committee gulped at the thought of the feisty Iron Range DFLer in the governor’s office, but they held firm. They all refused to support a resolution that allows the House to file an amicus curiae brief in support of the six poor defendants who have sued the governor over his use of unallotment at the conclusion of the last legislative session.

The Republican unity didn’t matter, of course. DFLers were just as unified. All 14 members of the committee voted to support the resolution.

Moments after the 14-8 vote was taken, Tony Sertich, the House majority leader and the chairman of the Rules Committee, sent a letter to Ramsey County courts, where Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s unallotment powers are being challenged,  saying that the brief supporting the plaintiffs would be arriving on the judge’s desk as soon as it can be prepared. 

The House position was a foregone conclusion. But this committee meeting was filled with intriguing views of the future:

1. What if the courts rule in favor of the plaintiffs and find that Pawlenty was out of constitutional bounds in his use of unallotment?

“The budget is already a huge problem,” said Sertich. “There are deficits as far as the eye can see. This [the suit and the resolution] is about the future. It’s about the letter of the law. It’s about who comes after us.”

Sertich noted that the House brief will be written by the nonpartisan House research staff and will not cost taxpayers “a single cent.”

2. It was clear from the tone of this meeting that next session there will be efforts to rewrite the unallotment statute that Pawlenty used in unprecedented fashion.

“I’m hopeful that that effort will be bipartisan,” Sertich said.

Despite the fact Republicans were in lock step in opposing Monday’s resolution, a number of them privately have expressed discomfort in the amount of power Pawlenty exercised at the close of the session. They understand that someday a DFLer might actually be governor and could wield the same power.

But for the record Monday, Rep. Kurt Zellars, R-Maple Grove, the newly elected minority leader, was supportive of the governor’s actions.

The depth of the recession was the reason for the action, Zellars said. “The situation was like nothing we’ve seen before.”

3. Where is the DFL-controlled Senate in this? Why hasn’t the Senate joined the House in supporting the legal effort claiming the governor’s actions were illegal?

House members apparently made no effort to bring the Senate into this, a reminder that the House and Senate were unable to work together until the final days of the session in trying to counter Pawlenty’s power.

The arguments at the Rules Committee meeting were predictable.

Republicans argued that the majority was acting in a purely partisan fashion in writing the brief. In the process, the Republicans said, they were forcing the House research staff to act in a partisan fashion in preparing the brief that will support the efforts of the six people who are suing over special dietary funds and rental breaks that were unallotted by Pawlenty.

DFLers countered that they were acting in the interest of protecting the “separation of powers.”

Recall, the key to all of this is the phrasing in statute that gives the governor power to use unallotment in “unanticipated” revenue shortfalls. The governor, DFLers pointed out, signed all the spending bills, then, vetoed the revenue bill that would have covered the costs of those bills. The unallotment — more than $2 billion — clearly was created by an anticipated budget shortfall.

House and Senate DFLers have grumbled about the legality of Pawlenty’s move since the end of session.  Some members wanted to take legal actions themselves but ultimately waited for the six plaintiffs to act.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 11/16/2009 - 02:00 pm.

    I like to joke that the proper role of the House Rules Committee is to periodically go over to the Senate Chamber and spraypaint “House Rules!” all over the place.

    Given the timidity of what they do now, I have to say that the exact opposite, organized vandalism, is starting to sound rather appealing.

    Why they weren’t the ones filing this suit moments after Pawlenty’s action is pretty appalling. Making a big show of a paltry Amicus doesn’t redeem them very much at all.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/16/2009 - 02:17 pm.

    The House DFL seems to want to put their political weakness on display. It’s hard to understand the logic of this.

    Despite huge majorities in both houses of the legislature, the DFL was unable protect the interests of their constituents. It just seems to me that “Vote for us, we are politically ineffective” just isn’t a compelling argument to put to the voters.

    The DFL was in a position to prevent unallotment during the last session. They didn’t do it. It seems silly to call more attention to their political and legislative ineptitude now.

  3. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 11/16/2009 - 05:33 pm.

    Hiram Foster,

    I dare you to explain a single word of that. What planet do you live on? The Republicans stood fast and the House didn’t have the votes. It’s simple math and by simple I mean than anyone above fifth grade should get it.

    Pawlenty had ZERO intention of working with anyone. Republican activists love to see a trouble maker — hence why they haven’t had an effective law maker in this state in 20 years.

    We forget that our country’s greatest contribution to democracy in the world is the inability of simple majority to rule. You need two-thirds to override a veto of a governor — even one running for president full time. Europe is going to leap-frog the United States in the next 20 years and it’s going to come down to their ability to actually pass laws and set budgets. All of those conservative clowns who talk about the inability to sustain the European economy obviously hasn’t been there.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/17/2009 - 06:42 am.

    “What planet do you live on? The Republicans stood fast and the House didn’t have the votes.”

    It was a basic strategic mistake. The legislature put all the spending bills on the governor’s desk at once, allowing him to line item veto at will and pursue his unallotment policy at will without the need to go back to the legislature. Typically, the legislature withholds at least one critical spending bill in order to retain negotiating power.

    “Pawlenty had ZERO intention of working with anyone.”

    Possibly, but we can never know that for sure because leadership missteps never put him in a position where he needed to.

  5. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/17/2009 - 07:02 am.

    “The budget is already a huge problem,” said Sertich. [“There are deficits as far as the eye can see”].

    This is quite a different tone that now being set my Mr. Sertich in contrast to the one that state GOP used during the budget debates. Perhaps the gravitational pull of reality has pulled this issue of the structural deficit back to earth.

    Former Republican Governors Arne Carlson and Al Quie are both in agreement with the need for additional revenue as well as budget cuts. Quite frankly the two former governors are none too kind and speak often about the lack of leadership in the governors office when it comes to our current state budget.

    Governors Pawlenty’s own State Economist Tom Stinson has said that: “the state cannot cut its way out of this deficit and cannot tax it’s way out. That it will take a combination of both to deal with this in a fiscally responsible manner”

    Dollars to donuts, the next governor of MN will increase taxes in some respect and will also with the help of the legislature make huge meaningful cuts to the state budget. Perhaps even instituting some of the capital gains reductions and revenue recommendations of Pawlenty’s own blue ribbon business panel of 2009. That is what I would call leadership and taking responsibility and making hard and meaningful choices. That is what I had expected of Governor Pawlenty. Not some slogan that he could use for his next campaign.

  6. Submitted by John Olson on 11/17/2009 - 07:07 am.

    Glad to see that at least some Republican legislators (albeit privately) “get it” that this sets a dangerous precedent. If the roles had been reversed (a la a hypothetical Governor Rukavina), the lawyers for the Republicans would have been stampeding on July 1.

  7. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 11/17/2009 - 02:26 pm.

    Hiram, your point about the legislature preventing this doesn’t make sense in this context. Remember the root of the dispute is that Pawlenty acted in such a way as to usurp legislative authority. There is simply nothing to stop a governor at any time from using unallotment, regardless of what the legislature did or what bills have been signed. Essentially, the governor asserted the right to ignore the legislature and act unilaterally. The legislature also couldn’t act earlier because they can’t show they personally suffered harm, therefore their case could get tossed for lack of standing. They had to have someone else start a lawsuit, to which they could offer an amicus brief.

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/17/2009 - 03:52 pm.

    “There is simply nothing to stop a governor at any time from using unallotment, regardless of what the legislature did or what bills have been signed.”

    There are a bunch of ways. The way it was done in the past is that the legislature refused to pass critical spending bills until an agreement was reached with the governor. Ultimately, an agreement on a balanced budget would have had to be reached, and with a balanced budget, there would have been no deficit and no unallotment.

    “The legislature also couldn’t act earlier because they can’t show they personally suffered harm, therefore their case could get tossed for lack of standing. They had to have someone else start a lawsuit, to which they could offer an amicus brief.”

    My belief is that the legislature, or the House portion of it shouldn’t participate in the lawsuit at all. Politically, it’s a mistake because it highlights the leadership’s strategic ineptitude in allowing this happen. Legally, it’s a mistake because it gives the lawsuit the color of a political dispute or political question, and political disputes are and should be decided by voters, not judges. That the courts would see this as a political dispute was always the most likely outcome, but the House DFL leadership, by sticking their noses into the matter, have made it easier for the judges to rule against them.

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