Outdoorsmen were outside the Capitol on the session’s opening day to welcome back legislators with signs saying they were disgusted with the way money from the legacy amendment is being spent.
Meanwhile inside, the Capitol rotunda was overflowing Thursday with people demanding that the General Assistance Medical Care program be revived.
Near both the Senate and House chambers, there were a handful of people holding banners demanding that gays and lesbians have the right to marry.
And almost everywhere, there were the usual array of lobbyists, grabbing on to any passing legislator.
But over everything loomed the specter of the $1.2 billion deficit in the current state budget, but it’s a problem legislators won’t begin to grapple with until the February economic forecast is released, according to House Majority Leader Tony Sertich.
Amid all of this, though, a bill that would limit a governor’s unallotment power was quietly getting fine-tuned, according to Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal. That bill likely will be introduced to members of the House and Senate next week.
Once upon a time, an unallotment bill would have been seen as a bit of tedious housekeeping.
All of that changed, however, last spring when Gov. Tim Pawlenty used unallotment in an unprecedented manner to unilaterally put the state budget into temporary balance. The Minnesota Supreme Court next month will hear an appeal in a ruling that Pawlenty’s unallotment action affecting two programs was illegal under current law.
Neither Carlson, the House author of the legislation, nor his Senate partner, Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, can predict whether the bill will be greeted as a partisan challenge to Republicans, or whether GOP legislators will see the measure as an honest effort to preserve legislative autonomy into the future.
“I’m always optimistic about getting bipartisan support,” said Carlson. “I will be putting out an email (to all legislators) seeking as many co-sponsors as we can get.”
Carlson said some Republicans have expressed private support for limiting the governor’s power, but don’t believe they politically can put their names on a bill.
“I’m afraid right now that it [the unallotment issue] has just become a symbol of the governor taking control of a budget,” said Carlson. “There’s a much bigger issue involved, but I’m afraid that most [Republicans] will see it as that symbol.”
The unallotment powers have been around since 1939 but were used sparingly — and modestly — until Tim Pawlenty became governor. But it wasn’t until last spring, when he vetoed legislative budget bills and then used unallotment to cut $2.7 billion from the budget that DFLers roared their disapproval.
There was talk, Carlson said, of eliminating the governor’s unallotment powers entirely.
“But as we asked around, we learned that repealing unallotment might create problems for bonding houses,” said Carlson. “They want the executive to have some powers.”
Carlson, Cohen and others then looked at other states where governors have more limited unallotment authority than Minnesota’s governor has.
“What we’re doing is clarifying the authority of the governor,” Carlson said. “We’re not doing anything that will move us out of the mainstream.”
Carlson plans to introduce the unallotment bill to the media as early as Tuesday. Likely, the bill will allow a governor to unallot only a certain percentage of funding from a specific program and would prohibit a governor from closing out programs entirely.
The proposal also will spell out that it is separate from any decision the Supreme Court makes regarding the legality of Pawlenty’s use of current law.
Legislators are still deciding whether the date of enactment for the law should be immediate, or whether it should be delayed until the start of the next biennium.
Of course, the final measure could be vetoed by the governor.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.