From NBC's John Yang
Across the country, governors and state legislators are battling over how to close big budget deficits. One of the most unusual fights is in the Minnesota Supreme Court today.
It involves Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- a potential 2012 presidential candidate eager to burnish his reputation as a get-tough-with-Democrats fiscal conservative -- and a unique provision in Minnesota law called "unallotment." That provision allows a governor to unilaterally rescind state funding in appropriations bills passed by the legislature and signed into law. The question the state Supreme Court is considering, however, is under what circumstances can he execute those powers.
As in other states, Minnesota's constitution requires a balanced budget (the state operates under two-year budgets). Unable to reach a budget deal with the Democrats who control the legislature, Pawlenty signed all the spending bills lawmakers sent him, but vetoed a bill that would have raised taxes to pay for them. After the legislature adjourned, Pawlenty used the allotment law to cut $2.7 billion in spending. Beneficiaries of a $500 million food program sued, and in December a state district judge ruled that Pawlenty "crossed the line" and usurped the legislature's role, violating the separation of powers.
David Schultz, a Hamline University political scientist, says the law is intended for emergency situations, such as when revenues drop unexpectedly after the legislature has adjourned -- not when a governor and lawmakers reach an impasse. Pawlenty, he says, is "creating the emergency conditions that allow him to use it. He appears to not want to negotiate in good faith. Working with the legislature is supposed to be a cooperative venture, not take-it-or-leave-it."
If the state Supreme Court rules against Pawlenty, Republicans say it's up to the Democrats to figure out what to do about the $2.7 billion it will add the state's deficit. "They own this issue now," House Minority Leader Kurt Zellers told Minnesota Public Radio. "If you truly believe -- like they said time and time again -- that this is unconstitutional, then it's up to them to find the $2.7 billion."