The Minnesota news media appear to be trying hard in the midst of a long holiday weekend to tell a complicated story. But they still have not quite captured the enormity of the blockbuster court ruling that Gov. Tim Pawlenty overstepped his authority when he unilaterally slashed our state government's budgets six months ago.
At issue was Pawlenty's unprecedented use of "unallotment'' power to slice almost 10 percent of the state budget — some $2.7 billion for public goods ranging from renter tax credits to nutritional assistance for the poor to public school support —at the beginning of the current budget period and at the end of the tumultuous 2009 legislative session.
The court decision applied only to one relatively small $5.3 million program, but the immediate and long-term policy and political effects of this event include: a possible flurry of additonal lawsuits from parties damaged by the other cuts, Pawlenty's immediate decision to appeal the ruling, a possible immediate special session to reconcile utter budget chaos, and infinite political complications for Pawlenty's pursuit of the White House, as well as the 2010 gubernatorial contest to replace him.
And we just have to say, we told you so.
Here's what Growth & Justice Communications Fellow Charlie Quimby and I had to say about the unallotment controversy in a an op-ed last summer:
It's fairly clear from past practice that unallotment power was intended as an emergency tool to deal with unforeseen budget shortfalls occurring in the midst or toward the end of budget periods. That is how the process has been used over the decades. It never has been used before the beginning of a budget period as a way to impose executive branch authority over the legislative branch, which has primary responsibility under our constitution for budgets and appropriations.
It was absurd and wrong, we and others argued, for a governor to invoke emergency unallotment authority by creating his own emergency, in this case, by approving the Legislature's spending bills, then vetoing the tax bills that funded that budget, and then declaring an emergency shortage.
And here's what Gearin said: "(Unallotment) is not meant to be used as a weapon by the executive branch to to break a stalemate in budget negotiations with the Legislature or to rewrite the appropriations bill.''
We feel vindicated but we were hardly alone. Lots of distinguished and authoritative community leaders, including former Republican governors and other moderate Republicans, and notably University of Minnesota Professor Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, were taken aback or openly appalled at the unallotment abuse. Jacobs opined at the time that Republicans ought to be deeply concerned about how the precedent might be used in the future by a DFL governor.
Meanwhile, somebody really has to say something about the untoward insult voiced by Gov. Pawlenty to the judge in the case, when he accused Ramsey County District Court Judge Kathleen Gearin of having "inserted herself into a political dispute.'' This dispute was hauled in to her courtroom, in full accordance with the law, and she was obligated to make a decision. Would a decision in favor of Pawlenty, on a case of monumental policy and political importance, been LESS of an insertion?
Judge Gearin in her quarter centry on the bench has earned a high degree of respect from her peers and was elected chief judge for Ramsey District Court in 2008. She has made far-reaching decisions before, creating political tsunamis, and on none of these was she overturned. Reviewing the four biggest decisions in an excellent background piece by Star Tribune reporter Pat Pheifer, it's difficult to find a pattern of bias for a particular political party or a particular branch of government.
To recap quickly: Judge Gearin ruled against DFL House leadership, greatly pleasing Republican critics in the so-called Phonegate affair, forcing public disclosure of phone records in 1993. She ruled in favor of Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura, displeasing his Republican AND his DFL adversaries in 1999, when he sought to make money and moonlight as a celebrity while serving as governor (a move by Ventura that was as wrong as it could be, but legal). She ruled with the DFL Legislature and against a Republican governor in a 1991 redistricting case, finding that gubernatorial vetoes were returned too late to be legally binding. And finally, she was among many respected judges, most of whom were appointed by Republican governors, who overwhelmingly agreed on three separate panels in 2009 that Democrat Al Franken won the recount in the U.S. Senate race.
Let us all give thanks, as the new year begins, for three branches of government, and a fair and independent judiciary, and for checks and balances.
— Dane Smith