Saying a judge overreached and misinterpreted the law, Gov. Tim Pawlenty vowed Thursday that he will appeal a ruling that challenged unilateral budget cuts he imposed last summer.

But the Republican governor, who garnered praise from conservatives for outmaneuvering DFL lawmakers when he made the cuts, also said he's willing to return to the bargaining table with them.

Ramsey County District Court Judge Kathleen Gearin "has inserted herself into a political dispute," Pawlenty said at a news conference. "That degree of involvement by the court is concerning, to say the least. We believe the judge misapplied and misinterpreted the statute in significant ways."

However, an expert on Minnesota constitutional law said Gearin made "a good argument" in declaring that Pawlenty overstepped his authority in cutting the budget on his own.

University of Minnesota law Prof. Fred Morrison also defended the judge's role. "It's a highly political issue before the court, but that doesn't mean that it isn't a legal issue," he said. "A judge has a duty to rule on a legal complaint."

Gearin ruled on a lawsuit by recipients of a low-income nutrition program, whose funding Pawlenty cut using a power called unallotment.

She ordered $5.3 million in funding for the program reinstated pending a hearing in March.

Pawlenty's news conference Thursday was his first detailed response to Wednesday's ruling that he "trod upon the constitutional power of the Legislature" last summer when he cut $2.7 billion from the budget.

Pawlenty said he used the power properly, noting that the state faces its worst financial hardship since World War II. "If we can't use unallotment now, I don't know when we could," he said.

Pawlenty, who is exploring a run for president, also used the news conference to blame the DFL-controlled Legislature, which he accused of not working in good faith to solve the looming budget shortfall last spring.

The governor said he was open to holding a special session if an agreement can be reached during January to deal with part of the projected deficit. He raised the possibility of making more unilateral cuts if no agreement can be reached.

One former DFL senator who is running for governor said odds are slim that legislators and Pawlenty will broker an out-of-court deal to erase the $1.2 billion deficit projected for 2010-11.

"If the governor agreed to a tax increase, it would essentially be the end of his presidential campaign, since his claim to fame is his fiscal austerity," said former Sen. Steve Kelley of Hopkins. As for legislators from his own party, "it's going to be awfully tough for them to agree to cuts affecting key constituencies of the DFL," such as spending on health care and education.

After the 2009 legislative session, Pawlenty vetoed a revenue bill and then used his executive power to trim spending -- and the nutrition program.

Gearin wrote that unallotment power "is not meant to be used as a weapon by the executive branch to break a stalemate" with the Legislature.

"It is, as the judge says, a classic separation-of-powers case," remarked Morrison.

Gearin noted that a state appeals court in 2004 upheld as constitutional Pawlenty's power to unilaterally cut spending during an earlier round of unallotment.

But she said the appeals court ruling applied to different circumstances -- emergency action to deal with a previously unforeseen budget crisis. In contrast, she said, the 2009 budget crisis was apparent months before the governor made the cuts, and he crossed the line in making the cuts unilaterally.

"I think she has a good argument," said Morrison, but added, "I think she is, in a sense, pulling the punches."

Morrison said that's because the appeals court decision could be reversed on grounds that the language in the unallotment statute is unclear. The state Supreme Court, he said, could rule that Pawlenty has interpreted the statute overly broadly, giving himself power to effectively abolish programs.

Meanwhile, Pawlenty's administration must figure out how to start funding the nutrition program, which pays for special diets for ailing low-income Minnesotans. Gearin's ruling reinstating the $5.3 million for the program includes back payments to November, when Pawlenty cut the money.

"We're still working out the details for implementing the court's decision," said state budget director Jim Schowalter.

More lawsuits possible

Gearin's ruling on the nutrition program could spur other agencies or groups to file suit to get their money restored.

The board of the League of Minnesota Cities plans to meet this month to discuss whether to file a suit to restore the $128 million in aid the governor cut to cities for 2010.

But even if the cities were to get the money back, it would likely be temporary because the state still faces a major shortfall, said Gary Carlson, a lobbyist for the group.

The nutrition program case is not the only lawsuit targeting the governor's unilateral cuts. A separate Ramsey County suit is challenging his decision to cut a state program that provides a tax refund for donors to major political party candidates.

Pawlenty denied Thursday that he was using his solo budget-cutting authority to fortify his reputation as a fiscal conservative as he tests a run for president. He said his career has been defined by his belief in lower taxes and smaller government.

"This is not some new concoction that emerged in the last six months," he said. • 651-222-1288 • 651-222-1210