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Democrats call unallotment illegal

Members of the Welfare Rights Committee protest budget cuts proposed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty during a Thursday meeting about the cuts. Don Davis/Minn. State Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL - Democrats claim Gov. Tim Pawlenty's plan to cut $2.7 billion from the state budget is illegal.

Democratic legislative leaders Thursday told the Republican governor's commissioners that Pawlenty is overstepping his legal authority in balancing the budget by himself.

"There is some shaky legal ground to do some of the changes you are doing," House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said to Pawlenty's representatives.

He called it abuse of state law.

"This whole process just doesn't pass the smell test," Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said. "This deficit was manufactured by the governor's veto pen."

Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, said that the governor has authority to make cuts once it is known there will not be enough revenue to cover planned spending, but the two-year budget cycle under debate does not even start for another two weeks.

"I don't know how anybody can know for sure that we are going to have a deficit in the second year of the biennium," Berglin said.

The two-hour meeting centered on two major issues - whether Pawlenty has the authority to make the cuts and how they will affect Minnesotans.

Several organizations affected by the cuts are considering suing Pawlenty. House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said she expects a meeting of those groups next week.

But Pawlenty's budget point man said what the Republican governor did was perfectly legal.

"We are confident of our legal authority," said Commissioner Tom Hanson of Minnesota Management and Budget.

Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, told Hanson that he wanted to see a legal opinion backing up that authority.

"If the executive branch has the authority to do things like this, whew," Pogemiller said.

After the legislative session ended a month ago with no overall deal for the budget beginning July 1, Pawlenty decided he would make cuts on his own to balance the budget, a process known as unallotment. On Tuesday, he announced that he would delay $1.8 billion in school payments into the following budget cycle, and cut state spending for local communities, higher education and health programs.

Commissioners could give lawmakers little information about the impact of the governor's cuts. But state Budget Director Jim Showalter estimated 3,100 public and private workers would lose jobs due to unallotment.

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said one cut especially will hurt the elderly and disabled, reducing renters' refunds by nearly $51 million. Marquart said that will add an average of $156 a year cost to seniors and the disabled who rent homes.

But Revenue Commissioner Warn Einess told Marquart that the refund program remains "one of the most robust in the country."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.