Gov. Tim Pawlenty took his budget-cutting showdown with legislators to the Minnesota Supreme Court on Tuesday, even as DFL leaders prepared a bill to ensure that future governors never use the solo budget-slicing power the same way again.
Pawlenty's attorneys filed a brief Tuesday asking the state's highest court to overturn a lower ruling against the unilateral cuts Pawlenty made last summer.
That ruling threatens to unravel $2.7 billion in cuts and other budget changes and calls into question how and when the governor can trim the budget on his own.
"It's been relied upon by governors of both parties," Pawlenty said Tuesday at a news conference. "This is a statute that has served the state well."
If the Supreme Court rules against Pawlenty when it hears the case in March, the Republican governor could be forced back to the bargaining table with DFL lawmakers who are already furious about the way he cut billions without their input.
A defeat could also rewrite how future governors use the authority -- known as unallotment -- by limiting the state's chief executive ability to single-handedly wipe out entire programs.
A ruling in Pawlenty's favor could embolden future governors in dealing with the Legislature.
The Supreme Court agreed to a swift review due to the pressing budget concerns. Oral arguments are scheduled for March 15.
Lawmakers in St. Paul already must slice $1.2 billion over the next 17 months, so extracting another $2.7 billion could be a bloody and politically unpopular process as many lawmakers try to woo core constituencies as they seek reelection or vie for higher office.
In late December, Ramsey County District Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin ruled that Pawlenty "trod upon the constitutional power of the Legislature" when he made the cuts to the budget after lawmakers adjourned.
Six people on a small special-diet program that was cut filed the lawsuit, successfully arguing that Pawlenty wrongly used the power at the beginning of the two-year budget period. Gearin ordered the state to reinstate program.
Pawlenty appealed, saying Gearin misapplied and misinterpreted the law.
Three law school professors filed a friend-of-the-court brief Tuesday to challenge the notion that Pawlenty's action violated the constitutional separation of powers. The professors, who are constitutional law experts, do not weigh in on another key aspect of the lawsuit: whether Pawlenty used the authority correctly when he made cuts at the beginning of the two-year budget cycle.
Republican state Rep. Tom Emmer, a gubernatorial candidate, and 31 GOP colleagues have also filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the governor's cuts.
Gearin read requirements into the statute that aren't there, such as when cuts can be imposed and whether Pawlenty should have called a special session instead of imposing the cuts himself, said Charles Roulet, the attorney who wrote the brief for the GOP lawmakers.
Lawmakers have always been free to clamp down on the governor's unallotment power if they were unhappy with it, Roulet said. "The fact that they haven't means they've been OK with it."
Not anymore. Senate Finance Chairman Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, and House Finance Chairman Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, have drafted a bill that would limit the governor's solo budget-cutting authority.
That legislation, to be presented Wednesday morning, would cap how much the governor could cut from various programs. The governor also would be prohibited from using unallotment to eliminate whole programs or tweak eligibility standards for state-funded programs.
Signaling the intense rancor over the issue, Pawlenty warned Tuesday that he would veto legislation that attempted to change the state's unallotment language without his involvement in the negotiations.
"For [DFL legislators] to do it unilaterally, just throw it at me" is unacceptable, Pawlenty said.
The governor said he will wait to see the proposed changes. "I'm not going to say there can't be any changes, ever," he said.
Carlson saw that as an opening.
"We're very eager to work with the administration," he said. "In the end, we want it signed into law."
Staff writer Mike Kaszuba contributed to this report. Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288