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Unallotment cuts continue to plague Pawlenty, as some talk of suing gov.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Thursday said he will appeal a judge's decision that ruled he unconstitutionally cut a food program budget. He said he also plans to talk to legislative leaders about budget-balancing needs. Tribune photo by Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- The multi-billion-dollar question for Minnesota organizations that receive state money is whether challenging Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget-cutting efforts in court would be worthwhile.

On first blush, it would appear a Wednesday court ruling saying Pawlenty's summer budget cuts are unconstitutional would encourage more groups to sue over his actions. And dozens of organizations are thinking about doing just that.

But on Thursday, the day that Pawlenty said he would appeal the court order, the governor joined others in saying that in the end, more court action may not restore the cuts.

"If you win, what do you win?" asked Gary Carlson of the League of Minnesota Cities. "The state has a deficit that still has to be resolved. ... Do you have any long-term victory?"

Carlson's cities lost $192 million in state aid when Pawlenty trimmed $2.7 billion from the $30 billion, two-year budget.

But since the state still must plug a growing budget hole, the cities still could end up losing aid, he said. "Somebody has to balance the budget."

Pawlenty said the ruling by Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin may mean little to the current budget.

"The practical effect of this, I don't think will be significant," he said Thursday while announcing he would appeal Gearin's ruling that says his unilateral state budget cuts were unconstitutional.

He told reporters that he "respectfully disagrees" with Gearin's ruling that orders his administration to restore a $5.3 million program providing medically necessary special diets to 4,300 poor Minnesotans.

Pawlenty said the money would resume as soon as possible, but he will fight the ruling. An appeal, to the state Supreme Court or Appeals Court, could come within days or weeks, he said.

Gearin said Pawlenty overstepped his authority. She said state law allows him to make cuts in unexpected economic situations, but in this case he knew fiscal problems existed while the Legislature remained in session and he and lawmakers were preparing the new budget.

The law usually has been implemented near the end of a budget when revenues failed to meet expectations. In this case, Pawlenty made the cuts as the two-year budget began.

Gearin said that Pawlenty's actions removed the Legislature from its constitutional role of appropriating money.

In the budget's first year, which started July 1, most of the $2.7 billion of cuts came from Pawlenty's decision to delay $1.1 billion in payments to school districts.

Pawlenty said that since Democratic-Farmer-Laborite leaders, who control the Legislature, proposed similar delays that he will ask them to formally approve the payment shift. He said that could happen soon after the Legislature begins its 2010 session on Feb. 4 or he could agree to a few hour-long special session before then.

Many people affected by the cuts, such as cities and people who receive state medical aid, have thought about suing Pawlenty.

"I have talked to dozens of actual clients and prospective clients about the legality of unallotment and I would expect in the aftermath of this decision, I will be talking to a lot more," said David Lillehaug, a former U.S. attorney and DFL activist who worked on Al Franken's successful U.S. Senate election lawsuit.

"It is a direct clash between the executive powers and the legislative powers, decided by the third branch of government, the judiciary," Lillehaug said.

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.