Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Supreme Court rules for Dayton in dispute over line-item veto

The decision reversed a lower court ruling, and did little to quell the ‘toxic’ feud between Minnesota’s legislative and executive branches.

Gov. Mark Dayton leaving the Supreme Court chambers following the August hearing of oral arguments.
Leila Navidi

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Gov. Mark Dayton’s veto of House and Senate funding was constitutional, ending the legal battle on the issue but continuing a “toxic” political feud between the legislative and executive branches.

In the ruling, the court upheld Dayton’s veto, saying the Constitution gives the governor the power to line-item veto specific budget items. But they didn’t rule on whether Dayton had effectively eliminated the legislative branch in May when he vetoed about $130 million for the House and Senate over two years. That’s because lawmakers have “funds that are sufficient to pay the Legislature’s estimated expenses and allow it to continue as an independent, functioning branch of state government until it convenes again in regular session,” the ruling read. The next legislative session convenes Feb. 20, 2018.

“We conclude that principles of judicial restraint and respect for our coordinate branches of government dictate that we refrain from deciding whether the Governor’s exercise of the line-item veto power over the Legislature’s appropriations to itself violated Article III by unconstitutionally coercing the Legislature,” the 5-1 ruling read. It overturned an earlier order from Ramsey County court to restore funding to the Legislature. 

Dayton said he was “pleased” the court upheld his veto and the six-month legal battle was over. “It is time for us all to agree that this dispute has been concluded and resume working together for the best interests of Minnesota,” he said in a statement.

Article continues after advertisement

That doesn’t seem likely. Top legislative leaders are refusing to make key payments on a new Senate office building, an action that could hurt the state’s credit rating, and they won’t allow the executive branch to use nonpartisan staff to draft proposals. “I am not willing to bail the governor out,” Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt said Thursday. “He needs to own that.”

Legislators have been using reserve funds to cover expenses since funding for the branch expired in October. After the ruling dropped on Thursday, legislators voted to transfer $20 million in funds from a nonpartisan legislative commission to continue House and Senate operations until the next session convenes. Even with the new money, top legislative leaders say they won’t have enough to make it through next year.

Top leaders were expecting a more favorable ruling from the courts.

“I am shocked. I never would have imagined the courts would have ruled the way that they did,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said. “It will ripple across the whole country. It is important that the legislative branch have equal power with the governor. In this situation we don’t. We have to make extraordinary decisions and take money from places we know we should not.”

It’s the latest in an ongoing saga that started in May, when Dayton signed multiple state budget bills while vetoing funding lines for the House and Senate. He did so to try to compel them to come back to the negotiating table to discuss items in budget bills and a tax bill he didn’t like. Dayton also said legislators forced his hand when they included a provision in a separate budget bill that made funding for the Department of Revenue contingent on him signing a $650 million package of tax cuts.

But legislators pushed back, filing a lawsuit in Ramsey County Court arguing he violated the separation of powers clause in the state’s Constitution by endangering the functioning of a co-equal branch of government. A district court judge agreed, ruling Dayton’s veto “null and void” and ordering funding for the Legislature. The governor appealed that ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court, arguing a separate clause in the state’s Constitution gives him line-item veto authority. The Supreme Court agreed.

Dayton said he wants lawmakers to resume negotiations with him over their funding and provisions in the tax and budget bills, but lawmakers said they plan to quickly introduce a bill next session to restore their full funding and hope Dayton will sign the bill. If not, they could try to override his veto. “Governor Dayton has made everything we do in Minnesota so entirely partisan that it has become nearly impossible to work with him,” Daudt said. 

DFL Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk said legislators should try to work with the governor to repair what the legislator called a “toxic” relationship. If they don’t, he said: “This will be the biggest do-nothing session that we’ve ever seen.”