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Pioneer Editorial: Reining in the power to unallot

The first step in what might become the fall of the state budget house of cards came Wednesday as a Ramsey County District Court judge issued a temporary restraining order to prohibit Gov. Tim Pawlenty from unalloting state funds to a state Human Services Department program that provides special diet needs to disabled Minnesotans.

The Republican governor last spring signed the DFL-controlled Legislature's spending bills into law, but then failed to sign the spending bills to pay for the state budget. The bills included tax increase, which Gov. Pawlenty opposed. Instead, he used his executive power to unallot $2.7 billion from the spending bills.

The move was opposed by clients of the Minnesota Supplemental Aid Special Diet program, who filed suit on the matter, and the case was joined by the Minnesota House.

Ramsey County District Judge Kathleen Gearin agreed to the temporary restraining order, and set a further court date for March 10.

The governor's unallotment authority in state law comes usually near the end of a budget cycle when revenues fall short, created a financial crisis that must have him cut spending to balance the budget. But the lawsuit alleges that the governor created that situation himself by not signing the revenue bills passed by the Legislature.

"By exercising his unallotment authority to apply to reductions in revenues that were determined by a forecast made before the budget had even been enacted and by not excluding reductions that were already known when the budget was enacted, the governor crossed the line between legitimate exercise of his authority to unallot and interference with the legislative power to make laws, including statutes allocating resources and raising revenues," Judge Gearin said in a memorandum with the order.

"The authority of the governor to unallot is an authority intended to save the state in times of a previously unforeseen budget crisis, it is not meant to be used as a weapon by the executive branch to break a stalemate in budget negotiations with the Legislature or to rewrite the appropriations bill," she wrote.

While the temporary restraining order may be narrowly interpreted to affect only the supplemental special diet program, it could open the floodgates to further legal action to prevent a governor from ever taking such action again.

And that would be a good thing. We have three separate but equal branches of government, and in this case, the executive branch clearly overstepped its bounds to unilaterally impose a budget of its liking.