The Minnesota Legislature will have to start furloughing employees in December and completely shut down by February, unless there’s a resolution to the monthslong political and legal conflict between Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders.
That’s according to a report filed Monday by attorneys for the GOP-led Legislature in its court battle with the DFL governor, which is currently before the Minnesota Supreme Court. The high court issued a preliminary decision earlier this month in the dispute over Dayton’s line-item veto of legislative funding, but directed both sides to continue trying to work out differences before the court issues any final decision.
The new update on the status of the Legislature’s financial wherewithal may add urgency to court-ordered mediation sessions the governor and lawmakers begin this week. If Dayton’s veto is not overturned and legislative funding restored, the Legislature says in Monday’s filing, the Senate will run out of money on Dec. 1 and the House on Feb. 1, 2018.
The Legislature’s attorney, Douglas Kelley, noted in the memo that the shutdown dates could actually come sooner, because the estimates don’t account for expenses like employer payments for health insurance or payouts for unused time off.
“When these additional costs are included, the House and Senate carry-over funds will be exhausted much sooner than anticipated,” he wrote.
The Legislature says it needs about $5 million to keep the House and Senate running through Jan. 31.
Budget is opaque
Dayton and his legal team dispute some of the Legislature’s calculations, including those related to how much money the House and Senate need to spend to keep running through the end of January.
In an earlier court filing, Dayton’s attorney, Sam Hanson, argued that the Legislature’s budget is deliberately opaque, making it difficult to know which expenses are “critical” and which could be trimmed to save money.
Expenses from the state Senate alone singled out in that memo include money spent in 2016-2017 on things like dry cleaning ($1,000); water coolers ($30,000) and out-of-state travel ($200,000.) Much bigger sections of the Legislature’s budget cover salaries and benefits for 201 state lawmakers and hundreds of legislative employees, along with payments on the new Senate office building.
The renewed focus on the Legislature’s dwindling budget reserves echoes arguments made several months ago, after Dayton vetoed legislative funding during a dispute over other aspects of the state budget. The Legislature sued, arguing that the veto violated the separation of equal branches of government guaranteed in the state constitution. A lower-court judge sided with the Legislature, but the governor appealed that decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
The state’s top court issued an order that labeled Dayton’s veto as constitutional, but did not formally reject the lower-court decision. Instead the court ordered Dayton and lawmakers to hire a mediator, who will now attempt to broker a deal and end the political stalemate.
Taxpayers will cover the costs of the ongoing dispute, which has already totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars. Through the end of August, bills for the governor’s office amounted to $245,000. The Legislature won’t receive a bill until the matter is settled, but the lead attorney is charging $325 per hour.
The Minnesota Management and Budget Office has not yet released details on how costs related to mediation will be split, or how they will be charged.