Judge Gearin considers overturning unallotment
ST. PAUL -- A judge is considering whether to temporarily restore money to one state budget area Gov. Tim Pawlenty cut earlier this summer.
It is part of a wider case that challenges Pawlenty's legal authority to unilaterally make $2.7 billion in cuts to balance the state budget, a procedure known as unallotment.
Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin did not say when she would rule on the case, but she heard arguments this morning from a lawyer representing a half-dozen people who lost funding for their special diets, as well as lawyers representing the state. Gearin did, however, say that she would wait to see a brief opposing the governor's use of unallotment to be filed by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor-dominated House later this week.
Looking at a courtroom packed with journalists and about 25 other people, Gearin said she understands the case goes to the core of one government value, the separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
"You aren't going to get a decision today," she said Monday. "This is an important case."
The specific case Gearin is hearing involves people who lost funding from a $5.3 million program that, in part, provides money for some poor Minnesotans to buy food for special medically needed diets. Pawlenty cut funding for the program when he balanced the state budget following a stalemate with legislative leaders.
Lawyer Galen Robinson of Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance said his clients only receive $700 to $800 a month, and if they take up to $330 out for special diet needs, they do not have enough to pay for housing and other expenses. So he asked Gearin to immediately order the funds to be restored.
Robinson is trying to turn the case into a class-action lawsuit to restore money to others who lost it in unallotment.
Also sitting in court this morning were attorneys for others who lost money in Pawlenty's move as they decide whether to file their own suits against Pawlenty and Management and Budget Commissioner Tom Hanson.
Lawyers for Pawlenty and Hanson told Gearin state law was followed in making the cuts because funding bills lawmakers passed this year would spend more money than taxes would raise in the two-year budget that began July 1.
While Robinson argued that Pawlenty took spending decisions away from the Legislature by unallotting, Pawlenty's attorney responded by saying that he was left with no choice. And the budget situation is not getting better, Patrick Robben said.
"We could be unallotting yet again," he told Gearin.
Robben said Robinson is trying to debate policy, not constitutional questions.
"This court is not the proper forum to decide issues of public policy," he said.
The state just does not have enough money to pay for everything, Robben said.
"We think the governor overreached here," Robinson countered.
Earlier Monday, the Democratic-controlled state House Rules Committee voted 14-8 along party lines to send Gearin a brief saying it agreed with Robinson that the governor should not have taken the unallotment path. Republicans strongly argued that the brief was just a political document and the state should not fund such legal paperwork, but Committee Chairman Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, disagreed.
"I don't think there is anything political about standing up for our constitution," he said.
Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, said the important thing to remember is that the public thinks the lawsuit comes from the DFL.
"I think it is wrong," he said about the House supporting the suit, adding that Democrats should fund it themselves. "I just don't like the way we are going about it."
Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, raised another issue: Once the committee approved the brief, does that open the door for lawmakers to tell courts what they think about other issues?
The House got involved when then-Gov. Arne Carlson tried to improperly veto legislation and this situation is not much different, Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said.
"It is a legislative question that should be solved during the legislative session," Westrom added.
Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.