The ruling of a Ramsey County District Court judge has turned Minnesota’s recent political gridlock into new political chaos.
Wednesday’s decision by Judge Kathleen Gearin that Gov. Tim Pawlenty overstepped his executive powers by his pre-emptive use of unallotment may mean that the governor and the Legislature will be trying to complete work traditionally done in June in February.
The governor announced this morning that his office will appeal the judge’s ruling, saying she “inserted herself into the middle of a political dispute” and didn’t properly interpret his unallotment powers granted by statute.
Pawlenty appealing ruling and not budging on taxes
But he’s not budging from his no-new-taxes stance.
“I’m going to continue to fight against increased taxes,” Pawlenty said. “I’m going to continue to fight against increased government spending, and I’m going to hold state government accountable to live within its means.”
As a result, resolution never seemed further away.
It’s also become ever harder to determine what separates political ambition and what’s best for the state. Several key players — the governor, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Senate Tax Committee Chairman Tom Bakk — either are seeking higher office or, in Pawlenty’s case, widely believed to be seriously weighing such a move. Who can yield in that environment?
“I’d hoped we’d be able to get out of there [the Capitol] in a hurry this session,” said Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth. “I was hoping we’d be out by the end of March. Now, I’d say we could be there right up to the end of May.”
Even that might be optimistic, given how deeply both the Republican governor and the DFL-controlled Legislature are dug into their respective positions.
The judge, of course, ruled on a very small portion of the $2.7 billion cuts Pawlenty made last June through unallotment, shifts and some line-item vetoes. Gearin addressed only a $5.3 million special dietary program that Pawlenty had unalloted.
More court challenges ahead?
But there’s a possibility that Gearin’s decision to grant a temporary restraining order on that unallotment might open the door to court challenges from other programs the governor unilaterally whacked after announcing he would not call a special session to try to reach agreement with the Legislature.
For example, one of the prime targets of Pawlenty’s unallotments has been money once promised to cities through the Local Government Aid program. Will cities, which already have been cut by $64 million and are scheduled to take a $128 million hit in 2010, try to become partners in the suit that claims that Pawlenty overreached?
But the judge’s ruling, Carlson said, may set the stage for the League’s board to meet again.
“We’re trying to keep this out of the political realm and just concentrate on what’s best for our cities,” said Carlson.
But keeping all of this “out of the political realm” is virtually impossible.
In some respects, Pawlenty’s unallotment approach last June made life politically easier for everyone at the Capitol.
Pawlenty got what he wanted: preservation of his image as a no-new-taxes executive.
But DFL legislators got something, too. After passing a budget, based on a combination of cuts and tax increases, indignant DFLers got to point fingers at Pawlenty for his unilateral cuts, many of which undermined programs serving the poorest of the poor. While they were tsk-tsk-ing Pawlenty, they got to get out of St. Paul without having to actually come up with a workable budget solution.
Situation more complicated than ever
Huntley, one of Pawlenty’s harshest critics, admitted that legislative jobs have become ever more complicated in the wake of the ruling.
“The [upcoming] session becomes like a special session,” he said. “Much as everyone wanted to get out early, this is a huge issue for the state. The judge made the right decision for the long-term good of the state. It’s up to us to resolve it.”
Huntley’s special interest, the General Assistance Medical Care program, was only partially touched by unallotment. Most of that $380 million program — which aided the poorest of the poor, and the hospitals that treat that demographic — was wiped out by line-item veto.
But Huntley said the DFL had come up with ways to preserve that program and still save the state money.
Much other work, however, remains to be done. In December, the state announced that the slow economy means that the current two-year budget is $1.2 billion in the red, even after line-item vetoes and unallotment. So, even before Gearin’s ruling, the governor and legislators were faced with that problem.
And the fact is the governor and many legislators will be under a microscope as never before.
“I’m sure everyone will be second-guessing everything the speaker says and everything the chairman of the Senate Tax Committee says,” said Huntley.
That’s, of course, because both are considered to be in the top tier of DFLers in the gubernatorial scramble.
“But I’m sure they’ll both do what’s in the long-term interest of the state,” Huntley said. “I’ve known Margaret for a long time. I have faith that she’ll do that.”
Not surprisingly, Huntley doesn’t have much faith that Pawlenty can budge from his long-held conviction that the budget must be balanced by cuts, not any infusion of new revenue.
“I would support some increase in revenue,” Huntley said, “but I’d be surprised if he [Pawlenty] turned into a modern version of Al Quie.”
From 1979 to 1983, Quie was the Republican governor who eventually announced that he would not seek a second term during a budget crisis. Instead, he ultimately accepted a tax surcharge to help put the state’s budget in balance.
But that was then. This is now.
A judge has ruled that the governor and the Legislature must try to settle their differences.
But Republican legislators so far are saying they support the governor, who is still saying, “No new taxes.” And DFLers are saying that cuts are necessary but must be accompanied by new revenue.
At the Capitol, the year ahead smells a lot like the old.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.