A Ramsey County judge must now decide whether to take the side of Gov. Mark Dayton or the Republican legislative leaders who have sued to overturn the DFL governor's veto of their funding.
Attorneys for both Dayton and the Legislature appeared Monday before Ramsey County Chief Judge John H. Guthmann, laying out their cases in the constitutional clash between two branches of government. The Legislature's lawsuit contends that Dayton's line-item veto of legislative funding violated the separation of powers between government branches guaranteed under the Minnesota Constitution.
But Dayton isn't backing down, contending that the veto power is within his rights — and was a necessary step toward protecting the state's financial health as he pushes lawmakers to reconsider a package of tax cuts they approved in May. With the GOP-controlled Legislature's funding set to run out on June 30, the two sides are at an impasse as they pull the third branch of government into the dispute.
"Have the parties considered a third-party mediator, perhaps a retired judge?" Guthmann asked at one point, seeming to signal a reluctance to wade into the political dispute. Doug Kelley, attorney for the Legislature, said they had not.
Legislative leaders say reserve funding would dry up by later this summer. But Guthmann could defuse the immediate concern — and at least temporarily forestall furlough notices in July for 437 legislative employees — if he signs off on a deal reached Friday between Dayton and GOP leaders to extend funding for the House and Senate until Oct. 1.
Neither Dayton nor top legislative leaders were in the courtroom for the hearing that ran an hour and 15 minutes. But their attorneys brought the judge the same message: We're stuck.
"We're not going anywhere here unless you solve this question for us," Kelley told the judge.
The drama playing out in court began at the end of this year's legislative session, when Dayton and Republican leaders were at odds over a number of provisions in the state budget. After the Legislature linked funding for the state Department of Revenue to a tax-cut bill Dayton disliked, the governor pushed back by signing the bill but vetoing House and Senate funding in an effort to bring lawmakers back to the negotiating table on that and several other issues.
Kelley argued in court Monday that the move was problematic on two fronts. First, he said the veto effectively "obliterated" the legislative branch of government because it blocked funding for the salaries of 201 state lawmakers and their employees. Second, Kelley said Dayton vetoed the legislative funding not because he disagreed with that part of the budget itself, but because he was trying to force the Legislature's hand on separate issues.
"[Dayton] is not saying: 'I don't want you, or I disagree with the appropriation or the amount or anything else,' " Kelley said. "He's saying: 'Basically, I'm doing this for leverage over you.' "
The governor's attorney, Sam Hanson, asked Guthmann Monday to dismiss the Legislature's lawsuit. He said Dayton was well within the bounds of the constitution and his authority as governor to veto line items in the budget.
Hanson said the Legislature's argument that the veto would cripple another branch of government was inaccurate. He said budget disputes that resulted in government shutdowns in the recent past — including in 2011 and 2005 — have resulted in court orders that kept necessary functions of government running. In this case, Hanson argued that the buck doesn't stop with the governor's veto: The Legislature can still seek help from the courts to keep operating.
"There is no constitutional principle that limits [the governor's veto power,] unless he were to obliterate that branch of government," Hanson said. "And he can't do it, he doesn't have the power to do it, because that branch of government has the constitutional right to be funded for their critical core functions."
It's not clear when Guthmann will issue a decision in the case. At one point Monday he questioned if it made sense for the court to intervene in the dispute, given that it could already act to ensure funding for crucial government operations.
"Why should the judiciary get involved in a political question?" Guthmann asked.
The attorneys noted there is little direct legal precedent for the case playing out in Minnesota. A similar battle between New Mexico's governor and Legislature ended when that state's Supreme Court refused to hear the issue. It's likely any decision made by the lower court here would be appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.