Latest round in budget feud centers on candidness with court

New arguments Thursday in a court fight between the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton focus on how candid the sides have been with the Minnesota Supreme Court and whether lawmakers can easily shift money around to keep the House and Senate running smoothly.

Lawyers for Dayton, a DFLer who sparked the lawsuit by vetoing operating funds for the Legislature, said leaders of the Republican-led chambers “have not been candid with the court” during their push to reinstate the appropriations. Dayton attorney Sam Hanson argues that the Legislature could have up to $51 million to keep it afloat for months and that lawmakers “attempted to create a constitutional crisis by repeatedly stating in their filings, without factual support, that the governor’s vetoes have ‘abolished’ the Legislature or that the Legislature faces imminent shutdown.”

Attorneys for the Legislature responded forcefully that they concealed nothing and that moving money will be harder than Dayton portrays. “The governor attempts to shift the blame for his actions to the victims,” attorney Doug Kelley wrote.

The competing takes are in the latest legal volleys in a case that’s cast uncertainty over the Legislature’s viability and cost taxpayers a lot in attorney fees.

A lower court had invalidated Dayton’s line-item vetoes of the House and Senate budgets. But Dayton appealed to the Supreme Court, which has yet to make a final ruling. Justices ordered the sides to mediation, but that process quickly broke down. Justices said Dayton had the constitutional power to issue the vetoes but they were concerned about the action leading to an unconstitutional result; it’s not known when or if the Supreme Court will determine whether the district court ruling will stand.

The new filings put attention on a separate account used to fund joint House-Senate functions. The account for the Legislative Coordinating Commission was untouched by Dayton’s vetoes. The $17 million per year LCC budget is meant to run the Office of the Legislative Auditor, the Revisor of Statutes, the Legislative Reference Library and a range of issue-specific panels.

There isn’t agreement about how much of the LCC budget could be used to pay for basic House and Senate functions, including staff payroll and building costs. Nor do the sides agree on how easy it would be to shift dollars around. There are also reserves for the LCC that could come into play.

Dayton’s attorneys contend the Legislature could eventually move as much as $51 million over and keep the House and Senate running at full capacity until next August if basic operating funds aren’t restored. The Legislature is due back in session in late February.

Lawyers for lawmakers say it’s neither that simple nor is there as much accessible as Dayton’s administration projects. Some money is from dedicated sources, they wrote, and other transfers would require a formal vote first.

“Transferring a significant portion of the LCC’s appropriation to the House and Senate would be unprecedented and of great consequence,” Kelley and his team wrote in the new brief.

They added that forcing the Legislature to make such a transfer would inflict further harm: “The entire Legislative Branch is under threat.”

Both sides appeared to plead for the court to make a final determination — in their favor.

Dayton’s lawyers wrote that the high court should declare Dayton’s vetoes constitutional and overturn the district judge’s ruling to the contrary.

The Legislature’s counsel wrote that the court must “affirm the Legislature’s status as an independent, co-equal branch of government.”

Meanwhile, Dayton said earlier Thursday that he hopes the ill-will built up during the case doesn’t linger into the next legislative session. He told MPR News host Tom Weber that he doesn’t intend to carry a grudge into 2018 no matter how the funding fight turns out, and he expects that will be mutual.

“Anybody who is going to try to sabotage somebody else’s initiatives — and it goes both ways — because of spite from previous altercations is really doing a disservice to Minnesota and should be called out for doing so,” Dayton said.