Both sides have found ways to declare victory after a Sept. 8 Minnesota Supreme Court order in which Gov. Mark Dayton’s May 30 line-item vetoes were found to be constitutional.
The high court ordered Dayton and the Minnesota Legislature to give mediation a try in working out the ongoing funding impasse. In doing so, justices overturned a Ramsey County District Court ruling that had declared the vetoes — which zeroed out funding for the Legislature — “unconstitutional, null and void.”
Dayton, angered by a “poison pill” that would have put the Revenue Department out of commission if he vetoed the session’s $650 million tax bill, vetoed the two lines in the state government finance bill that contained the Legislature $130 million budget for 2018-19.
Dayton would restore the funding, he said, only if legislators agreed to return to the Capitol for a second 2017 special session. But Dayton wanted lawmakers first to delete several big chunks of their tax bill and two policy provisions in other bills, all of which he had already signed.
Led by Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, lawmakers refused and took Dayton to court. They prevailed in Ramsey County District Court Chief Judge John H. Guthmann’s courtroom. But he was overruled Friday.
“Based on the plain language of Article IV, section 23 of the Minnesota Constitution,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote in her Sept. 8 opinion, “we hold the governor’s exercise of his line-item veto over the appropriation for the Legislature’s biennial budget was constitutional under that provision.”
Expressing distaste for acting as an emergency governmental funding source, the court ordered both sides “to participate in good-faith efforts“ to resolve their still-unresolved funding dispute through mediation. On Tuesday, the sides agreed to appoint retired Hennepin County District Court Judge Rick Solum to act as mediator.
On or before Sept. 30, the sides must give the court a status report on their mediation efforts.
Judging by responses gleaned through interviews and over social media, reactions to the ruling tend to fall along party lines.
Shortly after it was released, Dayton issued a written statement celebrating the opinion as a win and casting a glance forward toward negotiations.
Appearing on the TPT-TV public affairs program Almanac several hours after the opinion was released, Dayton said the decision mirrored his own take on the dispute. “The Supreme Court said exactly what I did, which is, ‘Come back to the table and let’s negotiate our differences,’” the governor said on the program.
GOP legislative leaders zeroed in on other passages of the opinion in their joint House-Senate press release Friday. It indicated that they, too, had reasons to be pleased. One passage of the order, they assert, shows that the high court did not even really overturn Guthmann’s ruling.
“Constitutional powers may not be used ‘to accomplish an unconstitutional result,’” the opinion states, recycling a line that originated in the court’s 1955 Starkweather v. Blair ruling. The joint statement quotes that line, as did a later post on Gazelka’s personal Twitter feed, to suggest the court was displeased with Dayton’s use of the veto.
House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, in an interview Tuesday, agreed the passage is a powerful clue as to where justices are leaning.
“They didn’t strike his veto right out but they did suggest that it led to an unconstitutional result — I think that’s a big hint,” Peppin said. “I just see this as a stop on the way, and that they really would rather we fixed it so they didn’t have to rule on it.”
Other Republicans had similar takes. Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, posting on Twitter on Friday, called the decision “a punt to mediation.” But its wording hints at what might happen if mediation fails, Zerwas said. Because the court acknowledges constitutional power cannot be used for unconstitutional ends, he said, justices were suggesting the governor might not like the final result should the court have to step in and rule.
“The thought that this is a win for or vindication of [the governor’s] actions is literally cherry-picking half a sentence out of the ruling,” Zerwas said.
Harry Niska, a Republican attorney general candidate, had a similar take. “The hints are, on balance, mostly negative for the Governor’s position,” Niska said on his own Twitter feed.
Democrats responding to the opinion tended to emphasize the veto’s constitutionality as a clear win while calling on GOP leaders to compromise.
“Given the Court’s order, all sides must come together with a spirit of compromise and collaboration in order to reach an agreement that will better serve Minnesotans,” said House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Center, in a written statement.
Echoing that point, former House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, called for transparent mediation. “We work for Minnesotans, and they deserve a process that is open to the public,” Thissen said. “They deserve to know who is in the room, and they have the right to know what is being said.”
At least one high-ranking GOP leader broke ranks with leadership, however. Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said in an interview that he sees the ruling as a clear victory for Dayton. To Limmer, that is bad news.
“I think the decision sets a very bad precedent because it empowers a governor, to a greater degree, to hold over a legislative body the very salary of its members and staff in the event that the governor doesn’t like the way we do things,” Limmer said.
For Limmer, the opinion marks a break with Minnesota’s tradition of co-equal government. “This decision now empowers the governor with a little bit more leverage than a governor has ever formally had before,” Limmer said.
Opinions appear divided on the academic front, as well.
David Schultz, the Hamline University political science professor and court watcher, called the ruling an oddity. “It’s a very strange and confused decision,” Schultz said. “And it really sounds like it was an incredibly compromised decision. I don’t see it as a really coherent decision.”
Schultz said he suspects the four Dayton appointees might have been poised to make “a straight political decision” and that Gildea may have felt compelled to issue a compromise opinion that all six justices could sign onto, in order to keep that from happening too swiftly.
Mary Jane Morrison, a retired Mitchell Hamline School of Law professor and a state constitution expert, disagrees. She said that the ruling was neither confused nor, in her mind, unexpected.
She also disagrees there was any wiggle room in the court’s decision to overturn Guthmann’s ruling. She noted that in the court’s Aug. 28 oral arguments, several justices reiterated that they had but one question to answer — whether the governor’s line-item veto was valid. They did that, Morrison said.
“And they did it brilliantly,” she said. “There were no dissents, no concurring opinions. It was an order of the court. So I don’t understand why anybody thinks it’s an unclear or confused order.”
She said that the court’s order sending the parties to mediate the funding issue is nothing unusual in a state where mediation has such a prominent role to play in litigating disputes. Even Guthmann had urged the parties to have their cases heard before a mediator.
“That’s a normal ruling,” Morrison said, “especially in these circumstances. This is a situation in which the political parties, by not controlling their own political powers, have created a constitutional crisis.”