Gov. Tim Pawlenty's unilateral actions last July to slash state spending tipped the balance of power in state government, and now tens of thousands of Minnesotans are paying the price.
One-hundred-fifty years ago, Minnesota's founding fathers drafted our constitution, establishing three separate co-equal branches of state government. Just like the U.S. Constitution, they created a system of checks and balances ensuring that no one branch of government has more power than the others. It is a system designed to ensure that the voices of Minnesotans are always heeded in state government.
Six Minnesotans hurt by the governor's unallotment have decided to fight back. These six aren't the most powerful people in the state.
Like many impacted by Tim Pawlenty's unallotments, they are poor, elderly, and disabled. They have relied on a modest state stipend in order to afford the medically prescribed diets they need to stay healthy and, in some cases, survive.
Gov. Pawlenty, on his own, eliminated the program on which these six depended. That program served 4,000 low-income Minnesotans on medically prescribed diets. Without the stipend, these Minnesotans may face serious health repercussions. This is truly a David and Goliath story. But despite their limited resources, these six have the law on their side.
You can agree or disagree with the merits of a program that helps a few poor Minnesotans afford a medically prescribed diet. But that is not the issue here. The governor's illegal use of the state's unallotment statute is the issue.
Minnesota's unallotment statute has only been used six times in the state's history -- three of those times by Tim Pawlenty. Until now, unallotment has been used within the confines of the law. It has been used as the statute explicitly requires: when probable state revenue receipts are "less than anticipated." In other words, according to the law a governor can only utilize the unallotment statute when the state faces a sudden and unanticipated budget deficit.
Last session's record budget gap was anything but unanticipated. From January until May Gov. Pawlenty and both bodies of the Minnesota Legislature were negotiating budget solutions to fill a $6.4 billion budget shortfall -- a deficit explicitly predicted by the 2009 February budget forecast. For months the deficit was there when the governor went to bed at night, and it was there when he woke up in the morning.
But instead of continuing constructive budget deliberations with the Legislature, Tim Pawlenty intentionally ignored his responsibility to seek a solution. He just walked away. Lawmakers passed a balanced budget, but the governor signed all the spending bills into law and vetoed the revenue needed to pay for it. He deliberately threw the budget out of balance in order to set the state's two-year budget single-handedly, without input from the Legislature or the people of Minnesota.
Tim Pawlenty's unfaithful use of the unallotment statute was nothing more than a politically-motivated power grab. He saw a political opportunity to personally manipulate the state budget on his own terms, and he took it. In doing so, the governor adversely affected the lives of tens of thousands of Minnesotans. Not only that, he broke the law.
Last week the Minnesota House of Representatives voted to submit a brief in Ramsey County District Court supporting the case of the six Minnesotans who have brought suit against the governor. This is not a partisan issue, nor does it concern the wisdom of programs for the elderly and disabled. Calling attention to Tim Pawlenty's unlawful actions is an absolutely necessary course of action to preserve the function al integrity of our democracy.
Good government relies on give and take. It lives and breathes on constructive public debate, cooperation, and thoughtful compromise. It may be frustrating to watch at times, but it is the best way to sort out our differences. No matter how much we disagree, representative democracy requires we work together to find a common solution.
No one Minnesotan, Republican, Democrat, or independent, should ever wield sole authority over the state budget or the welfare of our people.
As they say, that's too much power for a bad leader to have, or a good governor to want.
Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, is a member of the Minnesota House and a Bemidji High School graduate.