Judge rejects Dayton’s move to defund Legislature

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A Ramsey County judge Wednesday declared DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s line-item vetoes of funding for the Minnesota House and Senate violated the separation of powers clause of the Minnesota constitution and are “null and void.”

Dayton said later Wednesday he would appeal the decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The Legislature sued Dayton over the vetoes, which Dayton said he was using to try to convince lawmakers to come back to the bargaining table on other parts of the state budget, most notably the tax bill which he says puts the future budgets in jeopardy.

Ramsey County Court Chief Judge John Guthmann wrote that because the vetoes were unconstitutional, the funding for the Legislature included in the state departments funding bill that Dayton signed became law with the rest of the bill.

It’s unclear whether Dayton will appeal the decision.

Legislative leaders had urged Dayton not to appeal.

“Today the court ruled an entire branch of government cannot be eliminated by a stroke of the governor’s pen, said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa. “The governor should accept this verdict and allow the people of Minnesota to move on, instead of continuing to waste taxpayer dollars on expensive litigation. However, if he chooses to appeal, we will continue to defend Minnesotans’ constitutional rights to locally elected representation all the way to the Supreme Court.”

“Today Minnesotans won,” said House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman. “We are pleased the court has agreed to protect their voice at the Capitol and ruled Gov. Dayton’s unconstitutional veto of the Legislature to be ‘null and void.’”

Daudt added that he was willing “to start fresh.”

“This doesn’t have to be a black cloud over the next legislative session. But we do ask the governor, let’s accept the court decision. Let’s work together and stop this kind of frivolous strategy of trying to change things that were agreed to.”

But Dayton called the judge’s ruling “a preliminary step,” and said it was clear that the decision was going to be appealed no matter which side prevailed.

“As I have said, the tax bill passed last May by Republican Legislators jeopardizes Minnesota’s structurally balanced budget in the future. By working together, Republican Leaders could join with me to remove fiscally irresponsible tax cuts and also to eliminate the un-Minnesotan attacks on our state’s immigrant communities and our dedicated teachers,” Dayton said in a written statment. “I will continue to fight for fiscally sound budgets and policies that benefit all Minnesotans.”

The judge’s decision runs 22 pages and goes into great depth analyzing the competing legal arguments.

Guthmann’s ruling says Dayton has a clear line-item veto to stop spending he doesn’t like, but concluded the governor’s motives in this case weren’t pure. The judge says Dayton conceded he didn’t object to the actual spending but wanted to use the veto power to elicit another result.

That, the judge says, makes the veto “constitutionally suspect” and feeds into a separation of powers violation.

Guthmann wrote that the case put the courts in a sticky spot, equating it to political quicksand.

Meanwhile, the judge also decided a related case.

He tossed out a challenge to what lawmakers are paid. The House has balked at a pay raise imposed by a new independent panel created by voter initiative. The Senate took the increase, meaning senators are paid $45,000 instead of $31,000.

The ruling was technical. Guthmann wrote that the watchdog group that sued wasn’t the right party to bring a case and couldn’t show it was harmed.

Daudt said he expects a new lawsuit to be filed, likely from legislators denied a raise.

This post has been updated.