Challenging Gov. Tim Pawlenty's power to cut the state budget on his own, a judge on Wednesday halted some spending reductions and introduced a major new element to the upcoming budget fight.

Ramsey County District Court Judge Kathleen Gearin said the governor "trod upon the constitutional power of the Legislature" when he unilaterally cut the budget last summer through a procedure called unallotment.

"The authority of the Governor to unallot is an authority intended to save the state in times of a previously unforeseen budget crisis," wrote Gearin. "It is not meant to be used as a weapon by the executive branch to break a stalemate in budget negotiations with the Legislature or to rewrite the appropriations bill."

The judge issued a temporary restraining order reinstating money for a small nutrition program that Pawlenty cut from the budget. Several people in the poverty program had sought an order to restore the money while their case proceeds.

While Gearin's ruling deals narrowly with the food program, its implications are far-reaching as the state wrestles with a $1.2 billion budget deficit in the current biennium, a figure that could swell if Pawlenty's use of unallotment unravels.

"We are disappointed in the judge's decision," said Pawlenty in a statement released by his office. "We are weighing all of our options, including appeal, reestablishing unallotments under the current forecast, potential legislative action, and other options."

Asked to react to the ruling, University of Minnesota political science Prof. Lawrence Jacobs said: "This decision is a lightning bolt that the basic structure of Governor Pawlenty's budget may fall apart. The governor will be exposed to what could be a protracted legal and political battle."

DFLers hailed the judge's decision. "Today's ruling represents a victory for all Minnesotans concerned about the overreach of executive authority," said House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, a candidate for governor. "The legislative and executive branches of government need to be equal partners in addressing Minnesota's budget crisis."

The case stems from $2.7 billion in cuts the Republican governor announced last spring to balance the budget. After the legislative session ended without a budget agreement between Pawlenty and the DFL-controlled Legislature, he used an executive power that allows the governor to trim spending on his own.

In her ruling, Gearin said unallotment is constitutional but intended to be used as an emergency response to a state financial crisis that was previously unforeseen.

In contrast, she wrote, a massive state revenue shortfall had been forecasted for months, and Pawlenty signed some spending bills shortly before he made the unilateral cuts.

"Because the legislative session had ended, there was no opportunity for the legislature to attempt to override this veto or to continue to work on a compromise," the judge wrote. "The Governor crossed the line between legitimate exercise of his authority to unallot and interference with the Legislative power to make laws, including statutes allocating resources and raising revenues."

Not the final word

The restraining order only prevents unallotment of $5.3 million in funds for a nutrition program for poor people with special medical problems, and isn't the final word on the constitutionality of Pawlenty's actions. The case is scheduled for a hearing in March. But Wednesday's ruling could result in more lawsuits and force the governor and legislators into contentious negotiations to find new ways to balance the 2010-11 budget.

"I am disappointed in today's decision by the courts," said Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, who is seeking the Republican endorsement for governor. "It will just make the next legislative session that much more difficult."

Seifert defended Pawlenty's use of unallotment, blaming DFL leaders for not balancing the budget and arguing that "Pawlenty had no choice other than unallotment."

He said allowing the courts to "shield group after group from spending reductions" could prompt DFLers to renew calls for tax increases.

But DFL gubernatorial candidate Matt Entenza said the governor used "hatchet tactics" to balance the budget. "There are better ways to fix our fiscal problems."

Six people who relied on the nutrition program filed the suit Gearin is hearing. The program aids some of the poorest Minnesotans with 11 dietary conditions. They include those with special protein requirements, lactose intolerance, very high cholesterol, liver disease or women who are pregnant or nursing.

The DFL-led House wrote a brief in support of the suit. "Special diet funds are extremely necessary for our clients to maintain their health," said Galen Robinson, an attorney for the plaintiffs .

Jacobs said Pawlenty and DFLers could find themselves locked in a contentious budget battle if the governor's use of unallotment is found unconstitutional, or if he declines to fight the lawsuit.

Noting that the ruling comes as Pawlenty explores a run for president, Jacobs said, "The conflict and the compromises that the governor hoped to avoid with unallotment may well be back in his lap at the worst possible time." • 651-222-1210 • 651-222-1288