A conservative group on Monday sued to ensure continued paychecks for state lawmakers who are trapped in a fight with Gov. Mark Dayton over the Legislature's budget.

A watchdog group, the Association for Government Accountability, is arguing in Ramsey County District Court that a constitutional amendment on legislative pay that Minnesota voters approved last year requires that the state pay state lawmakers — even after Dayton's line-item veto last week zeroed out the legislative budget.

"It's an extraordinary breach of trust of the public," Erick Kaardal, an attorney and conservative legal activist representing the plaintiff, said of Dayton's veto. "It's an extraordinary breach of the constitution."

Last week, the DFL governor signed 10 bills that set the state's next two-year, $46 billion budget, but used a line-item veto to strike out operating budgets for the House and Senate. Dayton wants the Republican-controlled Legislature to renegotiate deals over tax cuts, education policy and immigrant driver's licenses.

Kaardal said the constitutional amendment on legislative salaries requires the Dayton administration to pay lawmakers. Voters authorized an outside group called the Legislative Salary Council to set lawmaker pay in the last election by approving a constitutional amendment that ended the practice of lawmakers voting on their own salaries.

Kaardal said the lawsuit only seeks to keep paying 201 legislators, but not the rest of the approximately $130 million in the two-year operating budgets for the House and Senate.

The Legislature employs more than 500 people, according to Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. Legislative operations without staff or money for other expenses would be severely hampered.

The lawsuit from a private group is another development in an evolving situation that some legal scholars are calling a "constitutional crisis."

Both the House and Senate will run out of money in a few months; the Legislature is in the process of obtaining outside counsel to sue Dayton over what it calls an unconstitutional abuse of power. A spokeswoman for House Republicans said Monday she was unsure when it would be filed.

Through a spokesman, Dayton declined to comment on the conservative group's lawsuit.

Last week Dayton said his veto authority is not limited in any way: "The Minnesota Constitution gives me the authority to line-item veto appropriations," he said. "It doesn't qualify that I can line-item veto these but not others. It's blanket authority."

J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042