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Judge considers overturning unallotment

ST. PAUL -- The first of what could be many Minnesota court rulings on Gov. Tim Pawlenty's authority to unilaterally cut the state budget should come within days.

A part of a wider dispute, a Ramsey County judge on Monday heard arguments about whether she should temporarily restore $5.3 million to one food program the governor cut as part of his efforts to plug a $2.7 billion budget deficit.

Chief Ramsey Judge Kathleen Gearin did not say when she would rule on the case as she heard arguments from lawyers representing the state and one for a half-dozen people who lost funding for their special diets. Gearin said she would wait to rule until she sees a brief opposing the governor's use of unallotment to be filed by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor-dominated House later this week.

The issue is whether Pawlenty usurped the Legislature's authority to set budgets. And more Minnesotans that lost funds could fight Pawlenty in court.

"This is the type of case the courts want to tread very lightly in," Gearin said.

Looking at a courtroom packed with journalists and about 25 others, Gearin said that she understands the case is important. "Some of the issues are core to ... the whole basis of our government," the judge said.

The specific case involves people who lost funding from a $5.3 million program that, in part, provides money for some poor Minnesotans to buy food for special medically needed diets. Pawlenty cut funding for the program when he balanced the state budget following a stalemate with legislative leaders.

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 diets, they do not have enough to pay for housing and other expenses. So he asked Gearin to immediately order the funds restored until she can issue a final decision on the case.

Robinson is trying to turn the case into a class-action lawsuit to restore money to others who lost it in unallotment.

Also in court Monday were attorneys for others who lost money in Pawlenty's move as they decide whether to file their own suits against Pawlenty and Budget Commissioner Tom Hanson.

Lawyers for Pawlenty and Hanson told Gearin that state law was followed in making the cuts because bills lawmakers passed this year would spend more money than taxes would raise in the two-year budget that began July 1.

While Robinson argued that Pawlenty took spending decisions away from the Legislature by unallotting, Pawlenty's attorney responded by saying that he was left with no choice. And the budget situation is not getting better, Patrick Robben 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.