While DFL leaders, hospitals, schools and others lick their wounds over Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposed "unallotments" and ponder their next move, an actual challenge to his legal authority to make emergency cuts might come from an unexpected quarter.

The somewhat-obscure Political Contribution Refund program, which at $10 million over two years is hardly a major budget item, was zeroed out as part of Pawlenty's recent budget-balancing plan and is to end on June 30. The watchdog group Common Cause Minnesota says that could allow political candidates -- like one of the many running for governor -- to take Pawlenty to court over his attempt to single-handedly balance the state's deficit-riddled budget.

Mike Dean, president of Common Cause Minnesota, said Monday that the group has been talking with lawyers and law professors over whether Pawlenty can make his unallotments -- as the emergency cuts are called -- stick.

"We're very concerned about the abuse of power here," Dean said. "We have consulted legal experts to make sure we're correct, but we think there are grounds. We would engage someone who would be injured -- a legislative candidate -- to file the actual lawsuit."

The program in question

Under the program, candidates who agree to abide by state campaign spending limits are allowed to seek contributions of up to $50 from individuals and $100 from married couples with the enticing promise that the state will reimburse the full amount. Intended to limit the influence of big money in campaigns, the program has also been used extensively by candidates and parties to build donor bases.

It started out as a tax credit, was repealed in 1987 but reborn as a refund in 1991. It is the only such dollar-for-dollar refund program in the country.

Republicans have tended to benefit more from it than DFLers, with the state GOP reaping about $1.6 million from the program in 2007 compared with $954,000 for the state DFL Party, according to campaign finance reports.

In addition, many legislative candidates rely on the program to help boost their coffers. Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, was the refund champ in 2007, with $26,495, with Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, close behind at $20,673.

Pawlenty himself has collected $236,222 in refundable donations over his 14-year political career (though almost none since 2002). On Monday, Dean said that Pawlenty should return those funds.

DFLers seek panel meeting

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, who has also made use of the program, said DFLers are not going to fight to reinstate the refunds. "As Democrats, we're much more concerned about funding for our hospitals and for education," he said.

Sertich said DFL leaders will concentrate on holding state commissioners to account for more detailed information on the fallout of the $2.7 billion in cuts and accounting shifts that Pawlenty has recommended.

Sertich said DFLers have asked to reconvene the Legislative Advisory Commission, which includes legislative leaders and must be consulted on unallotment. State budget commissioner Tom Hanson sent out a notice Monday that the panel would meet June 30, when the state's fiscal year ends.

Dean said his group will continue to examine its prospect for challenging Pawlenty's unprecedented use of unallotment. 'This gives him veto authority over any spending he doesn't agree with," Dean said. "That can't stand."

In reaction to Common Cause's call that Pawlenty return money, spokesman Brian McClung noted that the governor didn't use the program when he ran for reelection in 2006 and that his recent budget proposals would have eliminated it.

"While it is a nice program, public subsidies for politicians are not a key priority during these tight budget times," McClung said. "The PCR money was paid directly to individual donors, not campaigns. Is Common Cause suggesting that those individual donors should have to give the money back, even though they received it legitimately under the program at the time?"

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