Money talks while Legislature listens to allotment arguments

When it comes to much-talked about, seldom-achieved bi-partisanship, money talks louder than such niceties as the separation of powers.

Start with the power of cash. On Tuesday, nine Republican senators, including senate minority leader Dave Senjem of Rochester, voted against the wishes of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his party by supporting the DFL-created $1 billion bonding bill.

Move to a less bottom-line proposal. At this point, no Republicans are supporting a bill that would limit the governor’s power to unallot, thereby giving more power to the Legislature.

Though not available for comment, Senjem along with Republican Sens. Steve Dille, Dennis Frederickson, Joe Gimse, Bill Ingebrigtson, Michal Jungbauer, Paul Koering, Gen Olson and Pat Pariseau presumably all voted to support the DFL’s bonding bill because it will create projects in their districts.

Senators who supported the bonding bill were lambasted by Tony Sutton, state chairman of the Republican Party.

Tony Sutton
Tony Sutton

“Today’s vote by the Senate to add to our state’s debt is irresponsible and it is wrong,” Sutton said in a fiery statement. “Minnesotans can’t afford more wasteful government spending and business as usual pork barrel projects. Instead of providing critical funding for the sex offender facility at Moose Lake, this bill is replete with millions for sculpture gardens and gorilla and polar bear exhibits. Minnesotans deserve better.”

It’s expected that the bonding bill will get at least some Republican support in the House next week.

Nothing like a few million dollars to create good will among Republicans and DFLers.

But what of the effort to bulk up the power of the Legislature through restricting the governor’s use of unallotment?

On the surface, that would seem to be an action that legislators of both parties would support. After all, what legislator willingly gives up power, especially the power of the purse strings?

Separation of powers
This morning, Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, and Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, introduced a bill that would tighten the 70-year-old unallotment law in the state’s constitution.

“This is not an effort ‘to get Governor Pawlenty,”’ said Cohen, trying to be as soft as possible in selling the bill. “I’ve talked to Republican senators and tried to explain that this is about separation of powers.”

State Sen. Richard Cohen
State Sen. Richard Cohen

So how’s that going?

Cohen didn’t respond to the question.

Throughout their news conference this morning, Cohen and Carlson constantly repeated that they’re willing to work with the governor, who has threatened to veto attempts to cut back executive power.

So how’s that going?

“I’ve had a meeting with the commissioner of finance [Tom Hanson],” Carlson said. “We’re reaching out. He [Hanson] has seemed to be responsive.”

Their bill would put Minnesota in the mainstream, in terms of the degree of unallotment authority the governor would have. At least the governor’s understanding of current law, gives the executive almost unlimited power in using unallotment to balance the budget.

At the end of last session, recall, the governor unalloted nearly more than $2 billion in spending authorized by the DFL-controlled Legislature.

What would be different under the Cohen-Carlson package is that the governor could use unallotment only with the portion of the projected deficit that was not known at the completion of the legislative session; could not unallot more than 10 percent of a single fund appropriation; could not change eligibility amounts set by law in various programs.

Essentially, what this means is that unallotment would go back to being used in the way it always was used in Minnesota, until last spring when Pawlenty used unallotment, rather than calling a special session to resolve the battle of the budget.

Trying to sound as non-partisan as possible, Cohen and Carlson point out that the bill would NOT be retroactive to last spring. And they say it would not impact the state Supreme Court case, which is to be heard on March 15.

The bottom line
The DFLers proposing the changes are not in favor of eliminating unallotment.

There’s a bottom-line reason for that: Bond houses, they said, want the executive to have budget balancing flexibility. Legislators don’t mess with the wishes of bond houses.

There’s also a practical reason.

“We’re a part-time Legislature,” said Rep. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth. “The governor is a full-time executive. The governor is in position to deal with emergency situations. We’re not.”

Still, Reinert is a political science teacher who loves talking to his students about the wonders of the separation of powers. There is a reason that it is the Legislature that is constitutionally charged with the big picture finances of government.

“We’re the voice of the people,” he said. “This really is not a partisan issue. You don’t want this sort of [unallotment] power in the hands of a Democratic governor, either.”

The Republican House and Senate caucuses have not taken any sort of official stand on this issue — yet.

But the handwriting is on the wall in terms of DFLers getting Republican support for limiting executive power.

How can any legislator want to limit the power of the Legislature?

State Sen. Geoff Michel
State Sen. Geoff Michel

“Ah, this is a political fight,” said Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina.

Michel made it clear he wasn’t speaking on behalf of other Republicans, but he did say he’d be surprised if any Republicans signed on to the bill.

“I’m skeptical of taking away tools from the governor to balance the budget,” Michel said. “We’re a part-time Legislature, the governor is full time. I don’t want to see limitations on what he can do.”

Michel’s attitudes about executive authority seem to fit a Republican stereotype.

“I personally believe in the power of a strong executive,” Michel said. “That’s true in government, the newspaper business any other business. In the case of government, I recognize the limitations of 201 micro-managers.”

Would Michel feel the same way if the unallotment shoe was on the other foot — if a DFLer was governor and the Republicans were in control of the legislative body?

He answered with a laugh.

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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