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.