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Lawsuit over Senate building would be a headache for DFL but likely wouldn’t derail projects

A former legislator’s effort to stop the building could complicate the Mayo project and even tax hikes, but legislators could re-pass those provisions separately.

A former legislator alleges that construction of a new Senate office building shouldn’t have been included in the tax bill because it violates the “single subject” provision of the Minnesota Constitution.
Courtesy of Minnesota House Public Information Services

It would be a huge headache for Democrats — and Rochester – if the courts throw out the entire 2013 tax bill and, with it, Mayo’s Destination Medical Center.

But that’s not former Rep. Jim Knoblach’s intention.

He just wants the courts to strike down the provision in the tax bill to spend $90 million for construction of a Senate office building and two parking structures.

His lawsuit, however, also theoretically could jeopardize the tax bill’s $2.1 billion in new taxes — a key priority for Democrats — as well as backup funding for the new Vikings stadium and provisions for the $5 billion Rochester project.

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Knoblach is angry about what he calls wasteful spending on another building for bureaucrats. And he says that the spending shouldn’t have been included in the tax bill because it violates the “single subject” provision of the Minnesota Constitution.

That section reads: “Laws to embrace only one subject. No law shall embrace more than one subject, which shall be expressed in its title.”

It’s designed to ensure that lawmakers and the public are aware of what is in legislation before it gets passed and to prevent logrolling. Knoblach criticized Democrats for slipping in the building funding during the end-of-session frenzy at the Capitol.

Knoblach’s attorney, Erick Kaardal, said the legal system should toss out the whole tax bill at a Thursday press conference announcing the lawsuit. The former Republican lawmaker, who lives near St. Cloud, didn’t appear to fully endorse that idea.

“Will Gov. Dayton’s tax increases be thrown out, too?” Kaardal asked, broadening from the small piece that Knoblach is after. “I think everyone would agree they should be thrown out so the Legislature knows the courts are serious about enforcing this provision.”

“I think it’s likely if we prevail that the court will throw the whole statute out,” he added.

However, a constitutional law expert from Hamline University said that’s unlikely.

Mary Jane Morrison, who is working on updating her book on the Minnesota Constitution, said it’s unlikely Knoblach would prevail and even less plausible that a court would toss out the entire law.

She offered her views on the case succinctly:

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“I expect the Trial Court to deny the claim,” Morrison said. “At the Court of Appeals level, I expect the court to deny the claim. At the Supreme Court level, I expect the court to refuse to grant Cert [Certiorari — a decision to hear an appeal from a lower court]. That’s how clear I think the case is.”

But she also admitted that sometimes courts take a surprising stance, and lawyers and experts are typically paid to disagree.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, who was a big supporter of the building, defended the law in a Thursday statement. He said legislative lawyers and Minnesota Management and Budget reviewed the move.

“This lawsuit does not contain any legitimate concerns,” he said. “The legislation authorizing construction of the new legislative building adjacent to the Capitol was included in the public finance section of the tax bill. Public finance provisions have been an established component of tax bills for decades.”

Morrison also expanded on the legal concept of “severability,” which is key to Kaardal’s interpretation that the entire tax bill should be thrown out. In recent precedent, the courts have carved out, or “severed” the parts of a law they deem unconstitutional and left the rest alone.

Kaardal said that wasn’t always the case in Minnesota, referring to 19th century precedent. He pushed the legal system to toss the entire package, although Knoblach said he is simply looking for the office building to be removed.

But Morrison said that’s the way it is now.

“It’s not up in the air,” she said. “Severability has pretty standard rules. If the legislation itself says expressly that no provision is severable, then the court will invalidate the whole. But if the legislation says any constitutional provision is severable, then the court will sever it, and if the legislation silent, the court will presume that the Legislature intended for the unconstitutional provision to be severed.”

Knoblach is also citing two recent lawsuits where the courts cut apart legislation for violating the “single subject” provision as proof of the strength of his arguments.

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The first, a 2000 case related to the 1997 Omnibus Tax Bill, was sponsored by then-Rep. Tom Bakk. The state Supreme Court struck down a provision in the bill that required certain school districts to follow prevailing-wage laws because it lacked a connection to the tax bill.

And in 2005, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled against a concealed-carry law for being included in the Department of Natural Resources technical corrections bill.

Morrison was an adviser to groups opposing the concealed-carry law during that litigation. “They’re relevant,” she said of the two examples. “They’re certainly relevant, but they’re distinguishable.”

Knoblach noted that the current tax bill contains prevailing-wage provisions that he related to the 2000 court case. But, he said, he wouldn’t challenge that piece of the legislation.

Democrats called the lawsuit nothing more than a political move.

They also defended the Legislature’s legal authority to move forward with the Senate building ,and some said they would simply re-pass the necessary portions of the legislation, were they to be struck down.

“This is just a pretext to make a political point about the Senate office building and nothing more,” said Rep. Ryan Winkler, an outspoken Democrat and attorney. “Republicans love lawsuits as a way of generating news. They’ve done it consistently in the last several years.”

Knoblach said the move wasn’t prompted by political loss or lack of power.

“I voluntarily retired after six terms. I’m sure I could have run and won again,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a case of me having sour grapes because I lost, because I didn’t.”

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Winkler said it’s likely Democrats would re-pass similar legislation if the tax bill got tossed, noting bipartisan support for the Mayo project.

“I think that the Destination Medical Center has overall enough support to stand its ground even as a single bill,” said Rochester Republican Sen. Dave Senjem. “I think it’ll be favorably considered, so I don’t fear at all for the future of the Destination Medical Center.”

Democrats were slightly perplexed with the media for paying attention to the suit.

“This is a political move meant to get the media’s attention, and apparently it has,” said Rep. Kim Norton, a DFLer from Rochester. “We will just let it play through the process it does and … we’ll just deal with the decision.”