Morning Hot Dish

By J. Patrick Coolican

Gov. Mark Dayton signed all the major spending bills state spending bills on Tuesday, which means Minnesota's two year state general fund budget of $46 billion is in place. Except he refused to fund the Legislature.

It's a decision that sets up a summer's worth of political and legal disputes between the DFL governor and Republicans who control the Legislature. 

Dayton held a 5:30 p.m. news conference where he read a remarkable three page letter, quite clearly labored over by the governor himself. He was angry about a GOP provision in the state government budget bill that funds some of his key departments -- including his own office -- but that blocked funding for his Dept. of Revenue unless he signed the big $650 million tax cut bill so cherished by Republicans.

It was a “reprehensible sneak attack” and "last minute legislative treachery," Dayton wrote in his letter. His staff missed it, apparently, because they couldn't get bill drafts from Republicans. The House GOP says the state government finance bill was posted at 6 a.m. last Wednesday, 36 hours before it was taken up in either chamber. The governor's staff never raised concerns about this bill, say House GOP.

To be sure, during a news conference yesterday morning before GOP leaders flew off to events in Rochester, Mankato, Moorhead and Duluth, House Speaker Kurt Daudt had a boastful air when he was asked about the provision. He humble bragged that it wasn't his idea.

But even if Dayton and his staff were truly blindsided by this maneuver, it would be naive not to note something else that was happening last week and over the weekend: Dayton was getting a lot of pressure from progressive groups. Many were unhappy with the immigrant driver's license provision in the public safety bill. The teachers union hated the changes to licensure. And all the progressive groups didn't like the budget bills combined with a big tax cut that will eat into revenue in future years.

So, Dayton appears and says he will sign the budget bills, allow the tax bill to become law without signing it. And, line item veto the appropriation for the Legislature. So, he was effectively defunding the Legislature for two years unless they renegotiated some of the provisions in the tax bill (tobacco, wealthy estate tax, commercial/industrial inflator repeal) that they had obtained through their "legislative treachery." Oh, while he was at it, he also wanted changes to the driver's license and teacher licensure provisions. It was quite a moment.

Adding to the chaos, Dayton said by not signing the tax bill, it would become law. But lawyers and constitution nerds started arguing that's not what the state Constitution says. By not signing it, it would be what's called a pocket veto.Just before 11 p.m., another news release, this time saying Dayton signed the tax bill. 

That's unlikely to be enough to head off a lawsuit by Republican legislators, who are already calling the whole maneuver an unconstitutional breach of separation of powers. A House Republican I talked to is confident a judge will quickly order money for ongoing operations because the Legislature is an essential function of government. If that's the case, then that money, plus reserves, will allow the House to ride it out for a long time. They could also dump DFL staff as nonessential.

Another point of confusion, contention and potential litigation: The administration is claiming that the Legislature, perhaps unwittingly, approved controversial benefits for state workers like paid family leave. Republicans say heck no. 

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