The question of how and when Gov. Tim Pawlenty can balance the state's budget on his own is headed to a March showdown in the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Two weeks ago, Ramsey County District Court Judge Kathleen Gearin ruled that Pawlenty abused his power when he cut the funding of a state program that aids low income Minnesotans with diet issues. The cut was part of $2.7 billion that Pawlenty sliced out of the state's budget for the coming fiscal year using an obscure rule called unallotment.
She ordered the program's funding to be restored, and in the process threw Pawlenty's budget-balancing tactic into legal limbo.
"The authority of the governor to unallot is an authority intended to save the state in times of a previously unforeseen budget crisis," Gearin ruled. "It is not meant to be used as a weapon by the executive branch to break a stalemate in budget negotiations with the Legislature or to rewrite the appropriations bill."
Last week, Pawlenty appealed that ruling directly to the Minnesota Supreme Court. He wanted to bypass the Appeals Court process and bring a speedy end to the legal tangle.
Yesterday, Pawlenty got his wish. Chief Justice Eric Magnuson ruled the court would take the appeal for "accelerated review." Briefs are due by Feb. 23. The appeal will be argued on March 15.
If Pawlenty loses the court battle, he will have to work with the DFL-controlled Legislature to cut the $2.7 billion the old fashioned way, with negotiations. Legislators are due back in St. Paul next month, where they already face a $1.2 billion shortfall.