Legislature, Dayton take defunding veto to court
ST. PAUL – In a filled-to-capacity Ramsey County courtroom Monday morning, June 26, the Minnesota Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton laid the aftermath of their political dispute at the desk of District Court Chief Judge John Guthmann.
The question they asked, through their lawyers: Can a governor veto the appropriation for the Legislature as a way to return lawmakers to the bargaining table?
Dayton did just that last month. In signing a complete budget into law, he line-item vetoed the two-year, $130 million budget for the Legislature. In response, the Legislature sued the governor.
Minnesota has never seen a case like the one Guthmann must decide.
“There are no other cases out there, certainly not from Minnesota,” said Dayton’s attorney, former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Sam Hanson.
“This is a one-of-a-kind,” said lawyer Doug Kelley, who is representing the Legislature. “As far as we can tell, this is really unique.”
Earlier this year, New Mexico’s Republican governor vetoed legislative funding and the Democratic Legislature went to court over it. The court kept out of deciding whether the veto was constitutional and the politicians eventually worked out their differences. Forty years ago, West Virginia had a case with some similarities -- but exact circumstances and the laws there are quite different from Minnesota.
The unique case -- as Kelley noted, no other Minnesota governor has singled out legislative budgets for veto despite having the power to do so in the last 141 years -- prompted Guthmann to ask pointed questions that took both parties’ positions to their logical extremes.
Could governors veto funding for the Supreme Court because they didn’t like a court opinion, the judge inquired. That would be “unsavory,” said Hanson, but constitutional as long as the courts have another avenue of funding.
Guthmann asked if governors have to approve legislative budgets, even if the budgets represent “excessive or extravagant legislative spending.”
“You can’t obliterate another branch of government,” answered Kelley.
The two sides agree on the facts of the case.
The Legislature inserted a provision in one budget bill that would require Dayton to sign a tax bill if he wanted the state’s Revenue Department to remain operational. Dayton called that a “poison pill” — although Hanson acknowledged it is likely a constitutional poison pill — and signed the tax bill into law. At the same time, Dayton line-item vetoed two years of funding for the House and Senate. He left in place $35 million worth of funding for some nonpartisan legislative functions.
That’s where the two sides diverge.
The Legislature claims that Dayton crossed the line in his action and his motivation for the action.
“In our view, since the governor has essentially obliterated the Legislature for the next biennium, you don’t need to go any further ... this is improper, impermissible and most courts would say, ‘Yes, that’s true,’ “ Kelley said.
Besides, Kelley said, Dayton didn’t make the veto because he objected to the amount the Legislature allocated for itself. He made the veto because he wanted the Legislature to renegotiate provisions in the tax bill and other measures.
“I’ve been trying to think about why you would veto something and I sort of thought about two categories: There’s the ‘over my dead body’ veto ... and then there’s the ‘I want you to do what I want you to do’ veto,” Guthmann said to Kelley. “Aren’t they both legal uses of the veto?”
Dayton argued that the Constitution gives the governor unfettered ability to line-item veto spending items, no matter his reason for the veto. The Legislature can always go to the courts to plead for funding, Hanson said.
Courts have three times — on the verge of a shutdown in 2001 and during the government shutdowns of 2005 and 2011 — ordered funding for core functions of government, despite the lack of budgets approved by the Legislature and the governor. But, Guthmann noted, those orders have never been approved by the Minnesota Supreme Court.
After the parties left the courtroom, Guthmann decided Monday afternoon to enable an agreement the two sides reached to fund the Legislature through October while the court case goes on. The order, according a copy obtained by Minnesota Public Radio, allows the Legislature to receive the same amount of funding it did this year through Oct. 1 or until a final decision is made on the constitutional case.
“It is the duty of the courts to interpret constitutional provisions that appear irreconcilable and attempt to reconcile and harmonize them,” Guthmann wrote.
The next state fiscal year, and the first year for which the Legislature does not have an appropriation, starts July 1. The House and Senate had said they would need to shutdown nearly all operations if they didn’t get funding. Guthmann’s funding order put a stop to that -- at least for now.
Guthmann did not say when he would rule on the underlying constitutional question. But his ruling is unlikely to be the last one for the case. Both Dayton and the Legislature expect to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
The judge asked attorneys whether they had considered going to a mediator, perhaps a retired judge, to settle their differences. Hanson and Kelley said that if the court orders temporary funding, perhaps the Legislature and Dayton can work toward their own resolution.
“The best settlements are reached in an atmosphere of uncertainty,” Guthmann joked with the attorneys.
Guthmann will also decide a separate companion case that claims legislative salaries must be paid no matter what happens on other fronts and they must be paid at the $45,000 a year level that a constitutionally empowered panel set this spring. Daudt has said House members will continue to be paid $31,100 a year.
David Montgomery contributed to this report. Rachel E. Stassen-Berger can be reached at 651-224-5812 and firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @rachelsb.