Budget Standoff Drives Minnesota Legislature to Sue Governor

by | June 15, 2017

By Erin Golden

The Legislature sued Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday, as a fight between two branches of Minnesota government spilled into the third branch.

The lawsuit filed in Ramsey County District Court seeks to undo the DFL governor's recent line-item veto of the GOP-led House and Senate's operating budgets, which has raised the imminent prospect that 201 state lawmakers and 437 legislative employees from both political parties will stop getting paid as early as July.

Dayton wants to renegotiate several tax and policy measures initially settled in the recently concluded legislative session, and said he's not willing to restore legislative funding unless lawmakers agree to do so. Republican leaders of the House and Senate refuse.

"The vetoes impermissibly control, coerce, and restrain the action of the Legislature in the exercise of its official and constitutional powers and duties," reads the 29-page complaint. It lists "The Ninetieth Minnesota State Senate" and "the Ninetieth Minnesota State House of Representatives" as plaintiffs, with Dayton and his Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans as defendants.

"The line-item veto is within my constitutional authority," Dayton said Tuesday. While criticizing the lawsuit, he said he is unable to compromise on a handful of changes to state law that Republicans initiated in the recent legislative session.

"They're sticking with their position, and I'm sticking with mine," Dayton said. Legislators filed the lawsuit shortly after a fruitless meeting with Dayton on Tuesday morning, with Republicans saying they are simply unwilling to revisit items that Dayton just signed into law a few weeks ago when he approved a set of Republican-crafted spending bills.

"We're at a point where we just don't feel like we're going to be able to move forward, so the lawsuit appears to be the only direction we have at this point," said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa.

The constitutional conflict hatched last month at the end of a contentious legislative session. Dayton signed a group of bills that make up the state's $46 billion two-year budget and a $650 million tax-cut bill that was a top priority of Republicans.

Dayton explained that he strongly disagreed with a number of Republican priority items within those bills, but that he signed them in order to avoid the possibility of a widespread shutdown of state government. He was also irked when Republicans included the budget of the Department of Revenue within their tax-cut bill. Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt had characterized that as an "insurance policy" to make sure Dayton signed a bill he disliked.

Dayton says he has grave concerns that the new tax cuts, which will benefit Social Security recipients, business property owners and tobacco users among others, will negatively impact the state's financial health. He also wants the Legislature to reconsider a handful of specific policy changes, including licensing standards for teachers and issuing driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.

"Putting policy measures in these budget bills is putting a gun to the head of the executive branch," Dayton said.

Legislative leaders contend that Dayton's action violates the separation of powers between branches of government and renders the Legislature unable to carry out its constitutional duties.

Current funding for the House and Senate runs out on July 1, the start of the state's next fiscal year. Gazelka and Daudt said they would initially draw on reserve funds, but those won't last: the Senate will likely run out of money entirely within a month or two, the House after two to four months.

There are 67 state senators and 205 year-round Senate employees. There are 134 House members and 232 permanent House employees. The two chambers also have a combined 85 employees who work only during legislative sessions.

The lawsuit argues that disruptions to those employees are particularly challenging during the Legislature's offseason, when staff members are critical to keeping lawmakers in touch with their constituents.

"A legislator cannot represent the will of the People without the unabridged ability to communicate with his or her constituency," the complaint reads.

Daudt and Gazelka warned of serious financial consequences for the state that extend beyond the loss of salaries and benefits for legislative workers. Gazelka said he's concerned about the Senate's ability to cover bond payments on the new Senate Office Building, which opened just over a year ago.

Payments on the building amount to $8 million of the Senate's $32 million annual budget, Gazelka said, and he's planning to prioritize paychecks for Senate employees above payments on the building.

If the Senate can't pay that bill, Gazelka said, the state's bond rating could suffer.

"This isn't a political game that might affect just a few politicians," Daudt said. "It affects our employees, their families and ultimately could affect all Minnesotans if the legislative branch is grossly weakened by this action the governor has taken or if the bond rating of the state of Minnesota is jeopardized because of this political action."

Legislative leaders said they expect the case could end up in the Minnesota Supreme Court. They're hoping a judge will issue a temporary restraining order against Dayton's veto if the case isn't resolved quickly.

(c)2017 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)