Unallotment verdict is in: time to compromise


In a 4-3 ruling, the Minnesota Supreme Court struck down Governor Pawlenty’s use of the executive unallotment authority to eliminate funding for a state program. It is now time for Governor Pawlenty to do what he should have been doing all along: compromise with the Legislature.

The ruling, written by Chief Justice Magnuson, concludes that both plaintiffs (the party that challenged the ruling, specifically six recipients of assistance under Minnesota Supplemental Aid Special Diet Program who were harmed by the unallotment of funding for this program) and the defendant (Pawlenty and three state commissioners) both offered reasonable interpretations of the unallotment statute, although the Governor’s interpretation is “more strained.” However, because of ambiguity in the statute, the Court was led to consider the intent of the Legislature in crafting the unallotment statute.

In a key paragraph, the ruling notes that:

In the context of the limited constitutional grant of gubernatorial authority with regard to appropriations, we cannot conclude that the Legislature intended to authorize the executive branch to use the unallotment process to balance the budget for an entire biennium when balanced spending and revenue legislation has not been initially agreed upon by the Legislature and the Governor.  Instead, we conclude that the Legislature intended the unallotment authority to serve the more narrow purpose of providing a mechanism by which the executive branch could address unanticipated deficits that occur after a balanced budget has previously been enacted.

The ruling goes on to note that Pawlenty’s interpretation of the unallotment statute “would result in an alternative budget-creation mechanism that bypasses the constitutionally prescribed process.  There is nothing to suggest that was the purpose for which the unallotment statute was enacted.”

The ruling declares the Governor’s unallotment of funding for the Special Diet Program “null and void.” However, the broader implications of the ruling are not yet clear. For example, will Pawlenty have authority to use his unallotment after the current legislative session if there is failure to reach a budget compromise? The following sentence from the Supreme Court ruling would appear to preclude that outcome:

The [unallotment] statute does not shift to the executive branch a broad budget-making authority allowing the executive branch to address a deficit that remains after a legislative session because the legislative and executive branches have not resolved their differences.

In light of this, the warning issued by Pawlenty yesterday that he will unallot if the legislature does not acquiesce to his demands could be an empty threat.

I am no lawyer — and thus I’ll defer to legal thinkers about the actual ramifications of the Court’s ruling. However, the whole controversy could be rendered moot if Pawlenty simply recognizes that he is a governor — his role is to compromise on an appropriate budget solution, not to make demands like a petulant child and wait for the legislature to give him his way.

The legislature too has responsibilities. They have already enacted deep cuts, and more cuts may be necessary. However, they should also stand firm on the need for a revenue increase. Since 2002, Minnesota has cut own-source revenue more than any other state in the nation; in light of this, there is no defensible policy rationale for taking revenue increases entirely off the table. Lawmakers should not reward the intransigence of the Governor by yielding to him.