Judge Hears Dispute Over Minnesota Legislature Funding

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) – A Minnesota judge heard debate Monday over whether Gov. Mark Dayton’s line-item veto of operating budgets for the Legislature violates a separation of powers clause in the state constitution.

Ramsey County District Court Chief Judge John Guthmann heard oral arguments Monday morning from attorneys representing Dayton, a Democrat, and the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The 90th Minnesota State Senate and 90th Minnesota State House of Representatives sued Dayton and Myron Frans, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Management and Budget, on June 13.

The lawmakers claim Dayton’s last-minute vetoes of operating budgets on May 30 will prevent the Legislature’s core functions from being fulfilled. They say the vetoes violate a separation of powers clause in the state constitution.

According to the lawsuit, the Legislature passed a comprehensive and balanced budget for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 on May 26, which included nine appropriation bills and a tax bill.

On May 30, Dayton, a Democrat, signed all of the appropriation bills and the tax bill into law, but he vetoed two items of appropriation in the Omnibus State Government Appropriations bill funding the Senate and House.

State lawmakers claim these two items total more than $129 million and funded both chambers of the Legislature through fiscal year 2019.

During Monday’s hearing, Doug Kelley, an attorney for the Legislature, said Dayton effectively eliminated the Senate and House as functioning bodies by vetoing all funding for the core legislative branch for two years.

Kelley asked Judge Guthmann to declare Dayton’s vetoes null and void.

The attorney argued that Dayton did not veto appropriations because he objected to them, but rather “to coerce the Legislature into concessions in unrelated provisions.” Kelley added that some of these provisions have nothing to do with the appropriations that he already signed into law.

According to Kelley, the line-item veto was adopted by Minnesota in 1876 and since then, no governor has used the tactic in this particular manner.  He said that is for good reason since it “so obviously violates the separation of powers.”

But Dayton’s attorney, Sam Hanson, a former Minnesota Supreme Court justice, argued, “There’s a false premises that underlines all of these arguments and that is that the Legislature has been left with no funding. That’s not true. An appropriation may be equivalent to funding but it isn’t always.”

“You don’t have a constitutional right to an appropriation but you do have a constitutional right to funding,” Hanson argued. “Nothing the governor did here deprives the Legislature of funding for its critical core functions to operate as a constitutional body.”

Hanson also argued that the court has power to authorize funding for core functions if there is a partial legislative budget.

Dayton’s attorney claims in a June 22 court filing that the governor has explicit and unqualified authority under the state constitution to veto any line item of appropriation.

“The Governor’s veto authority is provided in the Constitution to check the Legislature’s authority and create a balance of powers,” the memo states. “The veto is the Governor’s most important tool when the Legislature ignores the Governor’s proposals, objections or other input. Although the Governor cannot ‘control’ the Legislature, the Governor may use the veto power to influence, discourage, or constrain legislative actions with which the Governor disagrees.”

It is unclear when Judge Guthmann will make a decision in the case.

In addition to the state lawmakers’ complaint, the Association for Government Accountability also sued this month over Dayton’s vetoes, calling them unconstitutional and at odds with an independent council’s decision to raise legislators’ pay.

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