A Minnesota judge ruled Wednesday that Gov. Tim Pawlenty "crossed the line" when he cut billions from the state budget on his own, ordering his administration to restore money to a food program for the poor.
The ruling from Ramsey County District Judge Kathleen Gearin only deals directly with a small slice of $2.7 billion in cuts the Republican governor announced this summer. But her accompanying explanation criticizes his strategy to slice the budget without input from the Legislature. Pawlenty was using an executive authority known as unallotment.
Gearin wrote that Pawlenty "crossed the line between legitimate exercise of his authority to unallot and interference with the legislative power to make laws."
The judge added that the power is reserved for an unforeseen budget crisis and "is not meant to be used as a weapon by the executive branch to break a stalemate in budget negotiations with the legislature."
Pawlenty's administration was ordered to reinstate funding for the Minnesota Supplemental Aid Special Diet program going back to Nov. 1 and continue it until further court notice. Another hearing is scheduled for March 1.
The program supplies cash grants to elderly and disabled people on fixed incomes to help them with special dietary needs stemming from other health concerns. It was estimated to cost the state $5.3 million, according to court documents.
Attorney Galen Robinson, who handled the case on behalf of several recipients, said people dependent on the program had been struggling to get by since the money was revoked.
"We're elated on behalf of our clients because it means they will be able to purchase the foods necessary to remain healthy," said Robinson of Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance. "Our clients' special diets cannot be met by having to rely on foodshelves."
Pawlenty issued a one-paragraph statement after the ruling.
"We are disappointed in the judge's decision," Pawlenty said. "We are weighing all of our options including appeal, re-establishing unallotments under the current forecast, potential legislative action, and other options."
Minnesota faces a $1.2 billion budget deficit for the current two-year cycle and a much larger one down the road.
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, a Democrat running for governor, hailed the ruling as "a victory for all Minnesotans concerned about the overreach of executive authority."
"The legislative and executive branches of government need to be equal partners in addressing Minnesota's budget crisis," Kelliher said.
The case grew out of cuts Pawlenty made after he and the Democratic-controlled Legislature failed to agree on a budget.
An attorney for Pawlenty had argued that the state would have trouble paying its bills if the administration lost in court because others hit by cuts would see it as an invitation to file similar lawsuits.
Gearin said in her ruling that she wasn't swayed by the assistance program at the heart of the case, but the process by which Pawlenty cut it.
"The court's decision was based on the way he unalloted, not what he unalloted," Gearin wrote, stressing she would rather the courts stay out of budget and policy decisions.
Pawlenty's unallotment authority had survived a court challenge early in his first term. What differed in this case is that Pawlenty made the cuts at the start of a budget period instead of doing them as a reaction to an economic report showing a deficit and little time left to solve it.
On the Net: