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Pawlenty defends his budget cuts to the state's high court

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ST. PAUL -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty tells the Minnesota Supreme Court that he followed state law and the constitution when he unilaterally cut state programs last summer, and he asks justices for a quick decision in the case.

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In late December, a judge ruled Pawlenty made some of his $2.7 billion in cuts unconstitutionally, and threw into question his entire budget-balancing action. In his Tuesday filing with the high court, Pawlenty said that ruling was wrong and has statewide implications.

"The question is likely to recur unless resolved by the Supreme Court," Pawlenty's lawyers wrote.

Pawlenty asked the high court to make a quick decision because the governor's unallotments came before the latest bad economic news that could result in the need for still more cuts.

Unallotment is the executive branch power to reduce expenditures to prevent an anticipated budget deficit.

The Dec. 30 court ruling dealt only with a $5.3 million program that provides special diets to 4,300 Minnesotans with medical problems, but many have been watching the case to see if others whose programs were affected also will sue.

Since the summer's unallotment, the budget deficit has grown by another $1.2 billion and is expected to keep growing during the budget period, which lasts another year and a half. The state constitution requires the budget to be balanced.

Pawlenty told the high court that its decision "will help develop, clarify or harmonize" the unallotment law.

"More than 70 years ago the Legislature granted Minnesota governors the authority to unallot and the district court's decision misinterpreted that law in key respects," Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said. "We hope the Minnesota Supreme Court will more clearly and directly address this issue."

If the high court does not accept the case, the state Appeals Court may.

Chief Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin ruled Dec. 30 that Pawlenty usurped legislative power by making cuts right after a new budget began last July 1. She indicated that Pawlenty did not meet the law's criteria of making cuts only when an unexpected fund shortage appeared.

At issue is a temporary restraining order Gearin issued last month requiring the Pawlenty administration to continue to pay for the diet program.

The suit was brought by six people who received the special diet aid, including Debra Branley, 56, of St. Louis County. Most were from the Twin Cities area.

Pawlenty ordered funding to the program restored the day after Gearin's ruling, the same day he said he would appeal.

Pawlenty's cuts included $1.8 billion in delaying state payments to public schools, $300 million from state payments to local governments, $236 million in trimming state agencies and $100 million spending for state colleges and universities.

If the justices say Pawlenty was wrong, others may join in the lawsuit seeking to have their funds restored.

However, some wonder what good a suit would go.

"If you win, what do you win?" Gary Carlson of the League of Minnesota Cities asked after the initial court ruling.

Carlson said with current budget problems, cuts will have to be made, so even if the court restores cuts, Pawlenty and legislators need to make new cuts later this year.

In a related case, Gearin dismissed a suit challenging Pawlenty's elimination of a program that gave tax breaks to Minnesotans who donated to political campaigns. The case was filed by Robert Carney, a Minneapolis Republican who Tuesday announced he was running for governor.

Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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