History of animosity makes task of quick cuts at Capitol tougher

Pawlenty, legislators say they must act fast, but can they do it by May 17?

The Minnesota Supreme Court may have handed the Legislature a political win and Gov. Tim Pawlenty a political loss Wednesday -- but it makes all their lives a whole lot harder during their remaining time together.

In tossing out Pawlenty's 2009 solo-budget cutting, the court blew what could be a $2.5 billion hole into the state's already gap-filled budget. Lawmakers and the governor had a $536 million deficit to solve this year even before the justices opined.

That gaping maw -- and the rocky relationship between the outgoing Republican governor and the DFL-controlled Legislature -- could mean the legislative session will go into overtime.

"The best comment I've heard today is: 'So, we are going to be spending Thanksgiving together here,'" said Phil Krinkie, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.

Even DFL lawmakers who believe the court restored the state's powers to their proper balance noted the looming task ahead.

"The checks and balances created by our constitution have again tipped the balance back in favor of the people of Minnesota," said Rep. Ryan Winkler, a Golden Valley DFLer and a key legislative point person on the unallotment suit. "Now the task falls to the Legislature and governor to do what our constitution requires, and what Minnesotans elected us to do: Find common ground, and together solve the state's budget crisis."

Although the Legislature and Pawlenty have struggled mightily to find common ground on budgets in the past -- a standoff that led to Pawlenty's 2009 unallotment -- some legislative leaders said it is not only doable, it can be done before the session's mandated end on May 17.

"Legislatures and governors that have come before us have moved mountains in the last week of session, and I know this Legislature is up to the task," said House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm.

He and other Democrats raised anew the possibility of enacting a tax increase to fill the budget gap.

Pawlenty, who made no predictions of a coming special session, has long said taxes are not the answer.

But he agreed the budget problem must be solved quickly.

"You simply can't leave this amount of money to linger until the next legislative session," said Pawlenty. Without a fix this year, the budget deficit coming in 2011 will be "very acute and unmanageable."

The problem won't be his to manage -- Pawlenty is leaving office in January.

As he has traveled the country politicking -- perhaps preparing himself for a White House bid -- the governor has boasted of his ability to reduce the size of the state's overall budget for the first time in decades.

Even though the court's ruling said the way he did it broke the law, he said his budget-tightening credentials remain untarnished.

"I'm proud of the efforts to do everything in my power to reduce spending and put a lid on taxes and reduce taxes in a state that desperately needs it," Pawlenty said.

Candidates take aim

The Democrats who want to replace him put a decidedly different spin on his record.

"This is exactly why I'm running for governor. We need a governor who will sit down with people and work out solutions to our toughest problems," said House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, one of three major DFL gubernatorial candidates running in a primary.

The court's victory may have granted Kelliher a win -- if only a pyrrhic one.

She was speaker last year when Pawlenty single-handedly slashed the state's budget and she appeared to be outmaneuvered.

She said his actions were wrong and may have been illegal. The narrow decision from the court makes her job as speaker tougher for the rest of this year -- and may make the job tougher if she wins in November -- but proves her right in her assessment of Pawlenty's powers.

Democratic candidates Matt Entenza and Mark Dayton said they too were proved right.

"Pawlenty has spent the last four years running roughshod over the Legislature, our state constitution and, by extension, the people of Minnesota. Today, the state Supreme Court stood up and told him, 'No,'" said Entenza.

Republican candidate Tom Emmer had a very different reaction to the court's decision -- the 4-3 decision reeks of "judicial activism," he said.

"Instead of acting as politicians, we need judges that will make decisions by applying the letter of the law to the facts," he said.

Staff writer Baird Helgeson contributed to this report. Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164

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