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Update 11:30 a.m.: State Supreme Court says Pawlenty unallotments are illegal

ST. PAUL - The Minnesota Supreme Court says Gov. Tim Pawlenty was wrong when he made unilateral budget cuts last summer.

The ruling, released this morning, technically only a covers a $5.3 million program that provided special diets to Minnesotans who could not afford the food ordered by doctors. But lawmakers and groups affected by last summer's budget cuts were look over the 47-page document to decide whether it also could affect other budgets.

The court decision was not unanimous, with three of the seven justices dissenting.

"We conclude the unallotment at issue here exceeded the scope of the statutory authority," Chief Justice Eric Magnuson said in writing for the court's majority.

Unallotment is a law that allows the governor to cut budgets in emergency situations when there is not enough revenue to cover state expenses.

It was unclear whether the ruling could affect more of the $2.7 billion that Pawlenty cut after he and legislators did not agree on a balanced budget a year ago.

Democrats were quick to say that the ruling proved that Pawlenty's "unallotment" overstepped his power.

"Today, Tim Pawlenty's overreach was overthrown by the enduring principles of democratic governance," said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. "The checks and balances created by our constitution have again tipped the balance back in favor of the people of Minnesota."

Winkler said the Republican governor now needs to work with the Legislature to balance the budget. "Now the task falls to the Legislature and governor to do what our constitution requires, and what Minnesotans elected us to do: find common ground, and together solve the state's budget crisis."

"I strongly disagree with this 4-3 decision by the court." Pawlenty said in a statement this morning. "Nonetheless it will require the legislature and my administration to address its budget impacts. The funds do not exist to reinstate my unallotments and the state budget needs to be balanced without raising taxes. I call upon the DFL-controlled legislature to ratify the unallotments I enacted last year."

Pawlenty and legislative leaders say they want to pass a balanced budget by the time lawmakers go home for the year on May 17.

In March, the state's attorneys told seven high court justices that Pawlenty had to make the cuts to balance the state budget, as the constitution requires. A legal aid attorney representing six people whose aid for medically required diets was cut by Pawlenty argued that the Legislature has the sole responsibility of deciding how to spend state money.

Attorneys argued for an hour and 26 minutes in a case with far-reaching ramifications both for the current budget and future governors' powers.

State Solicitor General Alan Gilbert said the balanced budget requirement supersedes other considerations.

"There are limitations about where you can find that kind of money," Gilbert said.

But Galen Robinson, representing those whose diet money was eliminated, said that is not the governor's decision.

"We are dealing with pure legislative power," Robinson said about spending.

Robinson's clients sued Pawlenty, alleging that he used his unallotment authority too early in the budget process, right after the new budget began last July 1. They claim, backed by the state House, that unallotment is to be used only in emergencies and only near the end of a two-year budget cycle.

A Dec. 30 district court ruling that the high court now has upheld only dealt 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.

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.