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Pawlenty power grab leads to bad results

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's decision to balance the budget by the process called "unallotment" is unfair, unwise and constitutionally dubious.

And that's just the beginning.

The governor's power to reduce spending without legislative approval does not come from the state's Constitution. It comes from state statutes, and is intended to give the governor the authority to make spending adjustments to avoid an unanticipated deficit between the periods when the Legislature is in session.

Under the law, the assumption is that the Legislature and governor would approve a balanced budget before adjourning. During a financial crisis occurring between legislative sessions, a governor, acting prudently and in consultation with a key legislative commission, would make needed adjustments to hold the budget together until the Legislature and governor could again pass legislation to balance the budget.

What the crafters of the unallotment law didn't anticipate was a rogue governor who would choose to act in bad faith, as Pawlenty has done. Pawlenty refused meaningful negotiations, made impossible demands for clearly imprudent accounting stunts like borrowing to pay ongoing expenses, and vetoed reasonable attempts by the Legislature to make cuts and increase revenue.

The Legislature passed a balanced budget. Pawlenty's vetoes threw it out of balance. In doing so, Pawlenty has found a way to circumvent the balance of power between the Legislature and the governor, essentially making him the sole decision-maker over funding for activities under the state's General Fund.

The unallotment law only allows the governor to make cuts to the state's General Fund, which makes up about 61 percent of the state's budget. He cannot touch the Health Care Access Fund, the school trust fund, or transportation and transit funds. Nor can he cut funding to the judiciary or the legislative branches because of the constitutional separation of powers. (The Legislature, by the way, began cutting its budget last year and more cuts are in the works.)

These limitations on the uses of unallotment are one of the key reasons why it's an especially bad way to go about budget-setting. Eighty-six percent of the General Fund spending is on K-12 and higher education (46 percent), health and human services (31 percent), and property tax aids and credits, (9 percent).

The lion's share of the health and human services is matched with federal dollars and goes to pay for nursing home and other long-term care for elderly and disabled citizens, so cuts here will also mean a corresponding loss of federal funds. That means that the impact of cuts in this area will be double.

The governor has already said he won't cut K-12 education, so that leaves higher education, health care and property tax aid to bear the brunt of his actions. The effect, when coupled with his previous line-item veto of funding for General Assistance Medical Care, will have a big impact on medical and long-term care in communities across the state. His cuts in medical care will be passed on to patients and premium payers. He will sharply increase property taxes during a time of falling home values. His actions will spur higher tuition costs for students and adults who are retraining to get back into the workplace.

In the budget-setting toolbox, unallotment is the sledgehammer. It just pounds dents in one part of the state's budget. It does not give a governor the ability to enact policy or to make changes that might result in increased quality, efficiency or service to taxpayers. Using unallotment as a main budget setting tool is a bad idea, and little more than bad results can be expected.

The state's budget desperately needs an overhaul, but the mechanic who took over the job is flailing a hammer. That will not bode well for Minnesota's taxpayers.

Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud, is assistant Minnesota Senate majority leader.