The Minnesota House decided Monday to tell a judge that Gov. Tim Pawlenty broke the law.

On a 14-8 party line vote, the DFL-controlled House Rules Committee approved filing a brief in support of a suit against the governor's unilateral budget cuts, known as unallotments.

Pawlenty announced the cuts in June, after he and DFL legislators reached a stalemate in efforts to close the state's looming $2.7 billion budget deficit. The governor claimed the DFL's proposed tax increases, which he had vetoed, would throttle a fragile economic recovery. Democrats, in turn, lambasted the spending cuts for attacking the state's poorest and most vulnerable residents, forecasting cutbacks in aid to students, health care to seniors and housing help for families.

The suit deals with only a portion of the $2.7 billion Pawlenty cut in June, but if the court sides with the plaintiffs, others affected by unallotments could ask the court to overturn those decisions, said Pawlenty lawyer Patrick Robben. "This would be a fateful decision for the state," Robben warned in a hearing Monday on the suit.

The suit challenges a $5 million cut to a meals program for the poor and a $50.8 million reduction in renters' credits.

Monday's hearing sought a temporary injunction halting cuts to the meals program.

The House's decision to add its voice to the legal fight is the latest phase in the bruising budget battle between Pawlenty and the DFL.

House DFLers said earlier that Pawlenty overstepped his bounds but took no legal action. Pawlenty said he expected a suit, but believed he was on firm legal ground.

Monday's House move was a rare one. The House has not filed a friend-of-the-court brief since the mid-1970s, when it supported a lawsuit seeking improved conditions in state hospitals, according to research from nonpartisan House staff. The House did sue Gov. Arne Carlson twice: in 1991 the House and Senate sued over vetoes, and in 1995 the House sued over Capitol office space.

'Tread very lightly'

As lawmakers cast their votes on the brief Monday morning, a Ramsey County judge considered a request by six plaintiffs to stop cuts in the nutrition programs they use.

The money at stake in the lawsuit is relatively small, but during Monday's hearing, District Judge Kathleen Gearin said that the underlying case raises issues that go to the very core of how government operates.

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

While many complained about Pawlenty's $2.7 billion cut -- the largest single emergency reduction in state history -- it fell to Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance to file suit.

"He created the shortfall," said Galen Robinson, litigation director for Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance and the principal lawyer for the six poor plaintiffs. "I think the governor overreached."

The state Constitution gives the Legislature budget authority, but state law allows governors the power to cut budgets on their own when unanticipated budget shortfalls arise.

Pawlenty has used the unallotment law twice before — and prevailed in a lawsuit attempting to block cuts he made in 2003.

What's different in this case is how Pawlenty invoked the power. Lawmakers sent Pawlenty a full set of tax and spending bills, which he signed except for a bill that raised taxes to erase a projected deficit. Rather than calling the Legislature into a special session to balance the budget, he used his executive power to make cuts of his choosing.

Robinson said Pawlenty misused the unallotment law, which has typically been used on an emergency basis toward the end of a two-year budget period to patch holes. This time, the cuts were announced at the beginning of the 2010-2011 budget.

Separation of power

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, a DFLer from Chisholm and chair of the House Rules committee, said the decision to reclaim the Legislature's power was not a political one.

"This has more to do with the Constitution and following the law than it does politics," Sertich said. "I try not to look at it as against the governor but against the actions that he took, which were, in my belief, illegal and unconstitutional."

Sertich said he wouldn't want any governor from any party to use unallotment as Pawlenty did, and hopes the Legislature will revisit the law that gives the governor that budget-cutting power when it reconvenes in February.

Republicans, all of whom voted against filing the brief, said the move was pure politics.

"It's absolutely partisan. It's absolutely political," said state Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont.

The DFL-led Senate is staying clear of the court fight for now. Senate Majority Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said the Senate isn't focused on the unallotment lawsuit but added Pawlenty "misused the spirit" of the unallotment statute. The Minnesota Senate has filed friend-of-the court briefs three times since the 1970s.

Until Pawlenty, unallotment has been a tool rarely wielded by governors. Granted by the Legislature in 1939, unallotment remained unused until 1980. It was exercised again in 1986.

Since taking office in 2003, Pawlenty has unilaterally slashed spending three different times. In February 2003, he axed $281 million. In December 2008, he cut $269 million. This year, he single-handedly cut or diverted $2.7 billion.

The current case isn't the first time unallotment's legality has been questioned. In 1980, two groups sued to reverse GOP Gov. Al Quie's cuts, but a court upheld those cuts.

Pawlenty has had his share of legal trouble with the power, too. He was sued in 2003 over his cuts to a special Iron Range fund. A District Court and the Court of Appeals supported Pawlenty in that case and the Minnesota Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal.

That same year, the Legislature and the courts questioned whether Pawlenty could cut the budgets of those separate branches of government. That dispute was solved out of court.

An additional suit this year questions the legality of Pawlenty's unallotment of a political refund program.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164 Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288