A group of Republican senators is asking the Minnesota Supreme Court to prevent a district judge from intervening in a budget impasse that has the state within 10 days of a government shutdown.
In a brief filed Monday, the senators accuse DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Attorney General Lori Swanson of creating a "political and constitutional crisis" with their requests that a district court appoint a mediator to help settle the dispute or a "special master" who could continue essential spending indefinitely.
The senators say both requests cross the line and would disrupt the separation of powers.
The brief, filed by Senators Sean Nienow of Cambridge, Warren Limmer of Maple Grove, Scott Newman of Hutchinson and Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes, states that only funding required by the state's constitution, federal mandates or statute should continue. Minnesota's Constitution says spending state money requires "an appropriation by law."
Those talks stood at a standstill on Monday, with Republican leaders kicking off the week by saying they had compromised but Dayton had not. In a Monday letter to GOP House and Senate leaders, Dayton called their negotiating tactics "unreasonable and unrealistic" and said their last offer to back off a $200 million tax cut if he would drop a $1.8 billion tax increase "so obviously inequitable as to be absurd."
Nienow and Limmer said Monday that one goal of their legal move is to force Dayton to support a minimal "lights-on" bill that would keep basic government functions going while leadership talks continued.
"That certainly is one option," said Limmer. Added Nienow: "That would be a constitutional solution."
A shutdown as outlined under the court brief would look different from that outlined by Dayton. While Dayton's shutdown plan would not fund education, the GOP lawsuit says that state funding of K-12 schools is provided under Minnesota statute.
Testing the limits
"This is not a burn all the bridges brief," said Fred Morrison, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Minnesota. He said a number of functions, such as prisons, would continue because of federal mandates.
Morrison said it was unusual for the senators to take their case directly to the Minnesota Supreme Court, asking them to rule that the lower court cannot authorize the spending. He said the court may throw it out and tell them to start in the lower court.
A similar situation played out in 2005, when the state faced a much more limited government shutdown and the Ramsey County Court authorized funding for "core functions" of government. A group of lawmakers challenged the court's authority, but the shutdown concluded before the case reached the appellate court.
In its 2007 ruling, the Appeals Court found some merit to the earlier arguments, but said the issue had been resolved. "If the events of 2005 repeat themselves, the legislators can raise a timely challenge to seek a judicial remedy for their asserted injury," the opinion said.
Swanson on Monday urged the high court to throw out the GOP petition.
Dayton expands list
Dayton, meanwhile, on Monday sought an expanded list of services he considers critical.
Initially, Dayton did not include state payments to medical providers. The programs include Medicaid, General Assistance, Minnesota Supplemental Aid, refugee cash assistance, group residential housing, MinnesotaCare, food support, Minnesota Food Assistance Program and adoption assistance.
Dayton said he now wants payments to those providers included and will advise court officials that the state should be allowed to continue enrolling people in those programs beyond July 1. The state's two-year budget expires on June 30. In his original petition, Dayton had said no new enrollees would be added after that date.
Nienow and Limmer also disagree with Dayton's assertion that he has "certain inherent powers" to "protect the lives and safety of the people of Minnesota."
Nienow said the governor is overreaching. "You can't just claim authority," Nienow said. "It has to be enunciated somehow, some way, in the Constitution or in statute.
"I can't find anything that even hints at that kind of authority for the governor," Nienow said.
Eric Roper • 651-222-1210 Twitter: @StribRoper