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In a rare rebuke, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that Gov. Tim Pawlenty's solo move last summer to cut $2.7 billion from the state budget violated the law. The court's historic 4-3 decision immediately threw the legislative session into fresh turmoil and left thousands of Minnesotans unsure about the fate of many state aid programs.
While the court ruled only on the cuts to a tiny nutrition program, its narrow decision now threatens to unravel all of Pawlenty's reductions as the Legislature enters its final week of the session. To prevent more lawsuits from other groups affected by Pawlenty's cuts, Democrats have asked the governor to rescind his action, called "unallotment," and return to the bargaining table "in good faith" to balance the budget.
The governor, meanwhile, challenged Democrats to ratify his earlier cuts or come up with a plan that does not raise taxes.
The court's decision is widely seen as one of the most significant rulings in state history and one that DFL legislators seized upon as boldly reaffirming their role in the budget process.
"This decision was really historic in nature in setting the parameters about the separation of powers," said House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm.
The governor, who only the day before had threatened lawmakers with future unallotments if they failed to adopt a new round of budget cuts, blasted the ruling.
"I strongly disagree with this 4 to 3 decision by the court," said Pawlenty, whose unallotment move helped him build a national reputation as a crusading budget hawk. "Nonetheless it will require the Legislature and my administration to address its budget impacts."
Chief Justice Eric Magnuson -- a Pawlenty appointee who is stepping down from the court this summer -- wrote the decision, which found: "Use of the unallotment power to address the unresolved deficit exceeded the authority granted to the executive branch."
The court did not find Pawlenty's use of the unallotment unconstitutional, but said that he did violate the statute. Pawlenty offered a "strained interpretation" of the language in the law, Magnuson wrote.
In a lower court, Pawlenty had argued that a district judge wrongly inserted herself into a political dispute. He has said he used the power properly as the state entered its worst budget hardship since World War II.
In separate concurring opinions, Justices Alan Page and Paul Anderson expressed concern about the unallotment law itself. They said the law could create future problems because it grants the executive branch "virtually unfettered discretion" over budgets.
Magnuson wrote the opinion on behalf of the majority, joined by Justice Helen Meyer. Justices Christopher J. Dietzen, Lorie Skjerven Gildea, G. Barry Anderson, all Pawlenty appointees, dissented. All three dissenters are widely considered to be leading candidates to replace Magnuson.
"We are very pleased on behalf of our low-income, disabled clients who were affected by this decision," said Galen Robinson, an attorney for Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance, who represented people using the nutrition program. It's satisfying to know, he said, "that their benefits will continue to be paid so they can buy the food they need to be healthy."
No one above the law
Ruth Ulvog, who is on the special-diet program, praised the court for reining in the governor on behalf of those who seldom have a voice in such battles.
"This is an affirmation that no one is above the law and that everyone is equal before the law," Ulvog said.
For local governments that lost millions in aid cuts, officials are trying to figure out their next step. They could file lawsuits, but risk a court win only to see the money vanish when lawmakers impose still more cuts.
"Minnesotans are tired of political games -- they want realistic solutions," St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said in a statement. "They want police officers on their streets and good teachers in their classrooms. Today's ruling is a call to action for the governor to return to the table and work with the Legislature to get the job done."
The ruling is the latest installment in the high-profile and bruising budget battle between the Republican governor and the DFL-led Legislature. Coming less than two weeks before legislators are scheduled to adjourn, the decision could turn their budget headache into a full-blown migraine.
Deficit could explode
Budget officials and legislative leaders expected to work well into the night on Wednesday to figure out the budget implications.
They estimate the ruling adds somewhere between $900 million to $2.5 billion to the budget deficit.
Lawmakers already faced an estimated $536 million deficit through the end of next summer. Now they must determine how much that deficit balloons and how much deeper they are willing to cut.
State Rep. Lyndon Carlson, who chairs the House Finance Committee, said the budget problems aren't as significant as the court's affirmation of the balance of power.
"Obviously the budgetary issue is important, but the retention of the balance of power between the executive and legislative branch is really the important question," he said.
Other lawmakers, still smarting from previous battles with the governor, saw the ruling as vindication.
"It isn't a dictatorship, it's a democracy," said state Rep. Tom Rukavina, who lost to the governor in a previous unallotment case. "This guy hasn't negotiated ever, at all, since he's been here and then he usually goes back on his word when he does try to negotiate."
While Pawlenty endured searing criticism at home, the Democratic National Committee used the ruling as ammunition as he tests a possible presidential run.
"Tim Pawlenty has continually abused his authority for political gain in unilaterally slashing vital services for Minnesota's working families, schoolchildren and elderly in order to curry favor with the far right wing of the national Republican electorate," Democrats wrote.
For his part, Pawlenty was cool when he addressed reporters after the ruling. He said the setback did nothing to curb his zeal for prudent fiscal management.
"I will fight to reduce spending and taxes in Minnesota and that battle continues," he said. "My commitment to the people of Minnesota remains the same: We will balance the budget without raising taxes."
To begin that work, the governor summoned lawmakers to his office Thursday morning to renew budget talks.
Staff writer Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288