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Governor's ability to make cuts facing stiff opposition

ST. PAUL -- Bills to restrict a governor's ability to unilaterally cut budgets are being introduced in the Legislature, and the state Supreme Court says it will accept cities' input when it considers the issue this spring.

The bill sponsored by House and Senate fin-ance committee chairmen would limit how much a governor could cut, but it would not affect Gov. Tim Pawlenty's 2009 actions, which have come under heavy criticism.

"It is an effort by the Legislature to take some of its power back," Rep. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, said Wednesday.

The proposal by two Democrats, Sen. Dick Cohen of St. Paul and Rep. Lyndon Carlson of Crystal, would allow the so-called unallotment law to be used only on a portion of a projected deficit that was not known during the most recent legislative session. Democrats complain Republican Pawlenty knew the deficit would occur before lawmakers went home last May.

The proposal forbids a governor from eliminating an entire program with unallotment and limits how much he can cut from any program.

"We're simply clarifying the role of the governor," Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, said.

Carlson said that if the bill had been law last summer, Pawlenty would not have been able to gain the biggest savings -- $1.8 billion by delaying state payments to schools.

Pawlenty's summer action inspired Democrats to change the law, which was enacted in 1939 and seldom used until recent years. It was written to allow a governor to cut spending when revenues came in lower than expected; backers say the changes still would allow that, but would prohibit massive budget changes as Pawlenty made.

The state constitution requires a balanced budget.

Reinert said that having a part-time Legislature means the governor must have some ability to cut spending when needed.

The state constitution gives the Legislature responsibility for passing a budget.

"He wrote a bad check," Falk said about Pawlenty, because he approved of legislative spending bills but did not sign a bill raising taxes to pay for that spending.

Falk said the bill probably would not force more special legislative sessions; rather, he said, it should force a governor and legislative leaders to work out budget differences "before they can fester and become bigger problems. ... This piece of legislation brings the governor back to the table."

On Tuesday, Pawlenty said he would consider unallotment law changes, but only if he has input. Carlson and Cohen said they will seek the governor's ideas.

The state Supreme Court is considering a lawsuit challenging Pawlenty's unallotment, and justices have allowed city officials to submit paperwork supporting the suit.

In paperwork Pawlenty filed with the court in support of his unallotment, he said the law should govern justices' consideration. The law says that if the state management and budget commissioner "determines that probable receipts for the general fund will be less than anticipated, and that the amount available for the remainder of the biennium will be less than needed" then unallotment is allowed.

"The district court ignored the plain language of the statute," Pawlenty claims about the Ramsey County court that declared his action illegal.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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.