Gov. Mark Dayton’s constitutionally risky attempt to eliminate funding for Minnesota’s Legislature comes before the state Supreme Court this week for its final judgment, with the outcome certain to shape the governor’s final year in office and color his legacy.
The Minnesota Supreme Court will livestream oral arguments online beginning at 8:50 a.m. Click here to watch.
A district court judge already ruled against Dayton’s move to zero out the House and Senate budgets through the line-item veto. Ramsey County Judge John Guthmann wrote in July that Dayton’s move “effectively abolished the Legislature” and was unconstitutional.
If the Supreme Court reverses Guthmann’s decision, Dayton will be able to withhold pay from lawmakers and staff in an effort to force Republican legislative leaders back to the bargaining table on some recently enacted tax cuts and two other GOP-crafted state laws that Dayton signed.
If Dayton loses, it will be at the hands of a high court whose majority he appointed, with long-lasting ramifications for the stature of future governors at odds with state lawmakers.
Dayton said in an interview that history will be final judge of his actions, and he defended his attempt to cut off pay for state lawmakers and their employees even though it could see him leave office with his relationship with the Legislature at a low point.
“I’ve done my utmost to conduct myself honorably in the office,” said Dayton, whose second and final term concludes at the end of 2018. “People may disagree with our policies, but I hope people believe I have acted in the best interests of Minnesota, and that I have conducted myself within the legal authority provided me.”
For Republicans, who will control the Legislature and the fate of Dayton’s agenda for the balance of his term, the governor crossed a line into a kind of monarchical behavior.
“There has been a breach of trust, and there is a mark on his office,” said Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake. “I don’t think this is what he wanted as his legacy.”
Dayton said vetoing the Legislature’s budget was his idea. He said GOP lawmakers left him no choice after their own unorthodox maneuver — making Dayton pay a legislative ransom in the form of tax cuts for favored interest groups that they tied to ongoing funding for the Department of Revenue, the state’s tax-collecting agency.
“It was a conniving move,” Dayton said.
He has targeted three tax cuts for repeal or scaling back: ones that benefit wealthy estates, business property owners and smokers. Dayton is proud of policies he pushed for that brought the state from deficits into surpluses, and he said the new tax cuts threaten that hard-won stability.
Dayton expressed particular scorn for the tobacco tax cuts, which struck a yearly inflationary increase in the state cigarette tax and cut the rate on premium cigars.
“Totally indefensible except for some special interest out there, or whoever who made whatever deals with whatever legislative leaders out there to get whatever political contributions in the future,” Dayton said. “It’s so sordid in terms of legislative misconduct.”
The vituperative language on both sides is instructive: No matter who wins in the constitutional struggle, the practical outcome is the same for the end of the governor’s nearly four-decade career in public service: He will preside over a divided government, paralyzed by polarization and poisoned by deep mistrust.
Even if Dayton prevails in court, Republicans say that under no circumstances are they willing to renegotiate tax cuts or policies that were part of the bills that Dayton signed. It would set a terrible precedent, GOP leaders add.
“I will not allow this tactic to work now or in the future,” said House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Monday morning. Dayton plans to attend. The decision will have important constitutional ramifications, potentially strengthening or weakening one branch of government in relation to the others.
In legal arguments filed with the court, attorneys representing the Legislature argue that Dayton’s actions forced lawmakers to turn to the judicial branch for relief.
“The governor used his line-item veto power as a sword to ‘gut’ the Legislature,” attorneys for lawmakers wrote in a recent brief, “by starving it of funding necessary to perform its constitutionally mandated core functions.”
Dayton argues that his line-item veto authority — the ability to strike any spending from the state budget, including pay for lawmakers and their employees — is clear.
Dayton has a stack of handouts for visitors to his Summit Avenue residence: the two relevant sections of the state Constitution spelling out his authority.
“It establishes the line-item veto authority without any qualifications,” Dayton said, calling it “clear and emphatic.”
So under that scenario, could Dayton zero out the judiciary branch budget if he disagrees with a court decision?
“I have never considered it, contemplated it,” he said. “I have vast respect for the courts.”
Gaming out the justices’ thinking is a favorite parlor game of the moment in the political circles of St. Paul. Two Twin Cities law professors who closely follow the high court say the justices have a track record of being apolitical when considering political cases. In 2009, for example, justices’ votes on the Senate recount between Al Franken and Norm Coleman — in favor of Franken — did not match up in every case with the political party of the governor who appointed them.
The seven-member court is made up of four justices appointed by Dayton, and three appointed by his Republican predecessor, Tim Pawlenty.
University of Minnesota law Prof. Herbert Kritzer said it’s unlikely the vote in this case will shake out along those lines.
“My guess, if I were to look at past precedent, is that the court may be divided,” Kritzer said. “But I wouldn’t expect it to be divided in a clear political way.”
A potential clue: While making the case for a significant increase in court funding at the Legislature earlier this year, Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea underlined the importance of three, coequal branches of government.
“The judiciary is not a mere state agency. The judiciary is a branch of government and it deserves to be funded as such,” said Gildea, a Pawlenty appointee.
Dayton said that win or lose, he will continue to fight for what he believes, including during the final legislative session of his career.
Daudt is firm that the tax and other issues Dayton wants to revisit are not up for discussion no matter what the high court decides.
But the House speaker said lawmakers ultimately have no choice but to work with Dayton when the time comes to legislate again.
“He’s a coequal branch of government. So we are going to work with him on problems people care about,” Daudt said.
As his tenure enters the home stretch, Dayton seems resigned at his inability to transcend the partisan moment that his legal battle with the Legislature embodies.
“We have very divided government in this country. It’s been a very difficult environment in which to achieve constructive progress, and the last couple years it’s been virtually impossible to bridge partisan divides that are not my creation, that have hamstrung my effectiveness,” Dayton said.
“It is what it is.”