A panel discussion this morning at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota explored the ramifications of this week’s ruling on unallotment by the state Supreme Court. Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, and Peter Wattson from the nonpartisan Senate Counsel office, took questions from University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs about the immediate and long-term meaning of the ruling. DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler was scheduled to represent the Democratic point of view on the panel but wasn’t able to attend.
The court’s ruling struck down Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s 2009 unallotment of a public dietary program. The decision renders Pawlenty’s $2.7 billion in unallotments illegal. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Eric Magnuson found the governor has authority to unallot after a balanced budget has been enacted by the Legislature and the governor, which wasn’t the case in 2009. But Wattson observed that Magnuson viewed the law is ambiguous when it comes to the circumstances that enable the governor to unallot.
Said Wattson: “You might ask, ‘Why did he come to that conclusion when it doesn’t exactly say that in the statute?’ And he looked back at the essence of the lawmaking power and the budgeting power. And he seemed to appreciate that the Legislature has the power of the purse in our system. And it’s the Legislature’s responsibility to create that budget and decide how much revenue is going to be coming in and how much is going to be spent and for what purposes. And that the Legislature must not have intended when granting that unallotment authority to give it to the governor in the event that they had not yet agreed on what the budget would be. He was reading into the statute a legislative intent that he divined based on his understanding of the proper roles of the legislative and executive branches.”
Ortman said Magnuson’s ruling went too far. She said voters, rather than the court, should uphold or reject lawmakers’ decisions at the ballot box.
“I think it was a quintessentially activist decision in a 4-3 court. And it seems to be rather reckless if you think about what the logical outcome is. The logical outcome is we can have a constitutional budget crisis in the next few months,” Ortman said.
On the state’s perilous cash flow situation:
Wattson: “We have a cash crunch. We don’t have enough money currently to pay all of our bills as they’re coming due. …What we have been doing is delaying payments to school districts. We may need to do that again in the fall. We may need to go out and borrow on the open market from banks to make the payments. But we’re not going to be able to do that if we have not balanced our budget.”
On a special session:
Ortman: “If there is a special session, it will be later, after there’s been an ‘everybody gets along’ meeting, and if they actually do have a deal they’ll come back in special session. It will be sometime between May 17 and June 30. The showdown that’s coming is: When? When will all the pressure of the cash flow problem and the deficit push somebody into an agreement?”
Wattson: “I don’t think we have the luxury of the extended special session preparations that take us into the end of June. The first of July is not our deadline. Our deadline is when a sufficient number of creditors come knocking and say: ‘We all want to be paid at the same time.’ I think they will work very diligently, very hard over the next 10 days to try to solve this problem. If they don’t get it solved by then, I think that they will be back immediately with special session discussions. They may not call it right away. But I think they will be discussing it immediately.”
On the chances for unallotment reform legislation:
Ortman: “I think it would not likely happen this year. It’s such a political hot-button issue right now. But in the future I hope the Legislature will address this and answer the court’s questions about whether they actually intended it (as) a method for use before or after balancing the budget.”