The unallotment decision

The Minnesota Supreme Court is releasing its decision in the case challenging Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s authority to cut the state budget on his own. The case was argued in March.

10:05 a.m. – The Court says the unallotment was unlawful.

10:08 a.m.Here’s the decision. I’ll be highlighting key points in a few minutes.

10:12 a.m. – Chief Justice Eric Magnuson wrote the decision, which must be a cruel blow to the Pawlenty administration. The governor appointed Magnuson to the position. He has announced his retirement after several years of feuding with the administration over court funding.

10:17 a.m. – The court did not address whether the governor’s actions were unconstitutional. It said that it avoids constitutional decisions if there’s another basis on which to rule in the case. That would certainly appear to invite more unallotment actions by the governor if the court’s uneasiness with the other “basis” can be settled.

The inherent authority of the executive branch concerning actual spending decisions once appropriations are made is not, however, directly implicated in the issue we decide today, that is, whether Minnesota’s unallotment statute was properly invoked in this case


10:21 a.m. – The court hints that it might not be a bad idea for the Legislature to fix the law under which Pawlenty exerted his perceived authority:

Although the competing interpretations advanced by the parties are each reasonable, that fact simply brings into focus the failure of the statutory language to clearly answer two questions: (1) probable receipts anticipated when? and (2) amount available for what purpose? Because we determine the language of the unallotment statute is ambiguous, we must employ the canons of construction to determine what the Legislature intended by the language it used.

10:25 a.m. – The “money quote”. Literally.

In the context of this limited constitutional grant of gubernatorial authority with regard to appropriations, we cannot conclude that the Legislature intended to authorize the executive branch to use the unallotment process to balance the budget for an entire biennium when balanced spending and revenue legislation has not been initially agreed upon by the Legislature and the Governor. Instead, we conclude that the Legislature intended the unallotment authority to serve the more narrow purpose of providing a mechanism by which the executive branch could address unanticipated deficits that occur after a balanced budget has previously been enacted.

10:26 a.m. – While not addressing the constitutionality of the governor’s actions, it certainly portrays a constitutional question of whether unalloting items approved by the Legislature neuters the Legislature.

The unallotment authority so construed would result in an alternative budget-creation mechanism that bypasses the constitutionally prescribed process. There is nothing to suggest that was the purpose for which the unallotment statute was enacted

10:30 a.m. – So, here’s the “perfect storm” for DFLers that gives them the “win” on this issue. They didn’t balance the budget and the unallotment authority, the court said, is used to adjust unanticipated deficits:

The unallotment statute provides the executive branch with authority to address an unanticipated deficit that arises after the legislative and executive branches have enacted a balanced budget. The statute does not shift to the executive branch a broad budget-making authority allowing the executive branch to address a deficit that remains after a legislative session because the legislative and executive branches have not resolved their differences.

Which, presumably, means that if the Legislature had delivered a fully balanced budget, and there were no major disagreements, and then the deficit appeared, Gov. Pawlenty’s actions could have been legal.

10:33 a.m. – Justice Alan Page takes on the constitutional question:

I write separately to highlight my concern that the unallotment statute confers on the executive branch such broad and uncircumscribed authority to rewrite legislative spending decisions that it may constitute an unlawful delegation of legislative authority in violation of the separation of powers principle in our constitution.

10:35 a.m. – It might not be a bad idea, Justice Page signals, for the Legislature to work on cleaning up the language of the process to avoid a constitutional question. Perhaps it could get fast-tracked as if it were a stadium bill. He didn’t write that part. I did.

The lack of direction in the Minnesota statute about how unallotment authority may be exercised once it is triggered leaves the executive branch with virtually unfettered discretion to decide which funds to cut entirely, which to reduce in some measure, and which to leave fully funded. Such decisions inevitably change the legislative priorities established in the properly enacted appropriations laws, and the grant in subdivision 4 of section 16A.152 to the executive branch of broad and uncircumscribed authority to make such changes may run afoul of the separation of powers principle. Although we need not decide that issue today, the legislative and executive branches should be aware of that potential problem.

Rest assured, of course, that Minnesota Public Radio will be providing plenty of coverage of this during the day. In a few minutes, on MPR’s Midday, state rep and gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer will appear. My guess is he’ll have something to say about this decision.