Wednesday, May 05, 2010

UNALLOTMENT DECISION! The Minnesota Supreme Court has spoken (or written or dictated, okay, you get the picture) and the news is, if not startling, (and not good for anyone at the Capitol who thought the 2010 Legislative Session was going to come to an orderly end (more likely an odorly end now) going to have a major impact on how relations between the branches of government are conducted in the future, both immediate and long-range. The 4-3 decision that ruled the unallotment of a relatively small appropriation dealing ($5.5 million) with a program that delivered meals to elderly and poor clients with special dietary needs. By extension, it is assumed that all other actions taking unilaterally by the Governor after the end of the 2009 session in respect to correction of the budget deficit would face a similar fate.

As background, we all need to recall that the Governor signed all of the budget bills (although he did apply some line-item vetoes, most notably a nearly $1 billion reduction in General Assistance Medical Care) and then vetoed the tax bill passed by the Legislature that would have provided sufficient funding for the legislative appropriations. The court decision, in a nutshell, is that the unallotment statute is meant for unforeseen budget crises and that the Governor's action in vetoing the tax bill after signing the budget bills creates a foreseen budget shortfall that needed to be addressed through either a special session or the implementation of other measures within the Governor's purview, particularly the previously-cited line-item veto.

For my part, and I'm not a constitutional scholar, but I think the court got this right. The actions taken by the Governor last spring marginalized the Legislature and marked yet another step in the drift toward the establishment of more power--at both the state and federal levels--in the office of the Executive Branch. I always joke that the "How a Bill Becomes a Law" page in civics text books needs to be revised, but we do need to maintain and protect the framework of checks-and-balances that exist between the branches of government. What we have here today is probably going to be studied for years as an example of how each branch of the system played a role in coming to this decision and it should be instructive to anyone who is a student of government.

We may end up in the same vicinity, budget-wise, where we were after the Governor's unilateral actions last June, but the process by which the budget correction decisions are made need to respect the relationship that exists in the policy development and implementation processes and the proper role of each branch of government in those duties. This will be interesting, but it won't be fun.

What happens next? The Governor is urging the Legislature to adopt his budget and to formalize a number of the actions he took last June, including the delay of state aid payments to school districts and the requirement that school districts recognize a larger portion of their property tax collections in the previous fiscal year. This would create a $1.8 billion one-time cash-flow adjustment that would solve over half of the $3.5 billion problem the state faces as a result of the Supreme Court decision.

The education community is four-square behind the legislation that would formalize the school funding shift at 73%/27% and the early recognition of property tax revenue. It's not new to us, as it's been employed a number of times since the late 1970s and while it isn't the best of policies, it sure beats a cut to the funding base. This measure is part of the House Omnibus E-12 Funding and Policy bill, but the Senate has not included it in its education funding bills (more about them later).

Needless to say, we're going to be up to our collective eye-balls in work for the next ten days and I don't know if everything can get done by the constitutionally-mandated adjournment date of Monday, May 17. As a reference, I'll just point to the picture at the top of the page, taken on the St. Croix River back in the 1880s. We already had a logjam at the Legislature prior to today's decisions, but the Supreme Court added a few extra logs. The question that will be flying around for the next few days is "Where's the dynamite?"


MN Post (includes link to decision):

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