If you watched the DFL-controlled Minnesota Legislature pass and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty sign into law a mini-budget bill before taking a halftime break last week, you might think lawmakers in St. Paul are marching efficiently to close up a $1 billion state budget deficit so they can get out on the campaign trail and begin Election 2010 well before the May 17 adjornment date.
But what if, suddenly, that state budget deficit ballooned to more than $3.5 billion? That’s one possible scenario, if the Minnesota Supreme Court decides Pawlenty’s budget unallotment move last year was unconstitutional.
Justices on March 15 heard the case against Pawlenty’s unallotment move, which unilaterally cut $2.7 billion in state spending last year after the Legislature went home to balance the budget, after he vetoed the tax increase the DFL Legislature passed to pay for the spending.
If they rule that Pawlenty acted unconstitutionally, those cuts might be wiped out, leaving lawmakers and Pawlenty a month or less to come up with a new budget plan that would balance the state’s books under the shadow of a much larger deficit.
Justices could also decide that Pawlenty’s actions were not unconstitutional, but that he did not follow Minnesota Statute in his particular application of the Governor’s unallotment power (see Eric Black’s coverage of the unallotment case here and here for a more detailed analysis). If that happened, their ruling could be limited to the $5.3 million cut from the state’s Special Diet program that prompted a lawsuit by six of the program’s recipients.
Of course, that could prompt other aggrieved parties to file their own lawsuits hoping to overturn other parts of Pawlenty’s unallotment actions.
If the Supremes ruled in Pawlenty’s favor both on constitutional and statutory grounds, then we’re back to a $650 million deficit and lawmakers who hope a new infusion of federal health care dollars will relieve them of making most of the hard decisions on where to find that money.
If not? The phrases “special session” and “state government shutdown” haven’t left this former Capitol reporter’s lexicon just yet, despite the instinctual need of politicians to campaign.