ST. PAUL -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty violated the state constitution when he cut a relatively small program as he tried to fix a $2.7 billion budget deficit this summer, a judge said in a ruling that could open the door to more legal challenges.
Judge Kathleen Gearin's Wednesday ruling that the governor was wrong came in the first major court challenge to Republican Pawlenty's summer decision to unilaterally cut the budget, a procedure known as unallotment. Others affected by the cuts have said they were watching the case before deciding if they, too, would take Pawlenty to court.
"The governor crossed the line between legitimate exercise of his authority to unallot and interference with the legislative power to make laws," Gearin wrote.
The ruling was in the form of approving a temporary restraining order, with a March 1 hearing scheduled to further discuss the issue.
The court case resulted from Pawlenty ending a $5.3 million program that provided aid to poor Minnesotans who need special diets.
While her ruling affected just the one, specific program, Gearin's opinion said less about the diet program than it did the governor's overall unallotment authority.
Gearin, the chief Ramsey County District Court judge, wrote that while state law allows the governor to unallot spending to reduce the budget, Pawlenty's action violated the constitution's separation of powers provision.
"It was the specific manner in which the governor exercised his unallotment authority that trod upon the constitutional power of the Legislature, and the Legislature alone, to make laws..." she wrote.
Pawlenty disagreed with Gearin's ruling.
"We are disappointed in the judge's decision," Pawlenty said in a written statement. "We are weighing all of our options including appeal, re-establishing unallotments under the current (budget) forecast, potential legislative action and other options."
Democrats who disputed Pawlenty's power said the Wednesday ruling proved them right.
"Today's ruling represents a victory for all Minnesotans concerned about the overreach of executive authority," said House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, a Minneapolis Democrat running for governor. "I applaud Judge Gearin's order and look forward to a full hearing on this case early next year. As I said earlier, this is an important case about the separation of powers in state government. The legislative and executive branches of government need to be equal partners in addressing Minnesota's budget crisis."
Gearin's ruling left open the option of Pawlenty and legislators settling the dispute in the session that begins Feb. 4.
Pawlenty announced before the 2009 legislative session ended in May that he would make budget cuts on his own if there was no budget deal with Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party leaders, who control the Legislature. There was no such deal and Pawlenty made his promised cuts when the new two-year, $30 billion budget begin July 1.
The specific case Gearin heard on Nov. 16 involves people who lost funding from a $5.3 million program that provides money for poor Minnesotans to buy food for special medically needed diets. Six people on the program sued Pawlenty and four of his commissioners on behalf of everyone who received diet funding.
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. He asked Gearin to immediately restore the funding; her order forces the state to pay affected people retroactively to Nov. 1.
Lawyers for Pawlenty told Gearin that state law was followed in making the cuts because funding bills lawmakers passed this year would spend more money than taxes would raise.
Since Gearin heard the case, the state budget situation has worsened.
Gearin said that Pawlenty had a chance to veto the diet funding on May 14 , but did not, thus allowing it to become law. He did, however, veto a tax increase lawmakers sent him as the session ended.
"The governor used unallotment rather than calling a special session of the Legislature or vetoing the appropriation bill to balance the budget," the judge wrote.
Gearin said Pawlenty knew about the budget situation when he signed the spending bill and vetoed the tax bill. The unallotment law can be used only when an unanticipated financial problem arises, she said.
The judge emphasized in her ruling that she was not saying what programs deserve to be funded, only that Pawlenty violated the constitution when cutting the diet aid program.
"The court's decision was based on the way he unalloted, not what he unalloted," she said.
National news media immediately picked up the story about Gearin's ruling because Pawlenty apparently is considering running for president in 2012. The governor has been one of the most-discussed potential candidates in recent weeks, especially after he visited Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to pick presidential favorites.
Back home, unallotment is bound to play a role in the governor's race.
While Pawlenty is not seeking re-election next year, Republican candidates generally have voiced support for his unallotment actions, while Democrats are critical of it.
"Those of us who have challenged this governor's hatchet tactics in the past know there are better ways to fix our fiscal problems than by taking from those who have the least," said former Rep. Matt Entenza, D-St. Paul, among a throng of DFL governor candidates. "Solving Minnesota's budget crisis requires a vision for growing our state's economy."
Added another DFL candidate, former Sen. Steve Kelley: "Today's ruling affirms that Minnesotans can and should have a voice in how our tax dollars are spent. It restores the constitutional balance between the governor and legislators."
Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.