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Constitutional face-off pits Minnesota Legislature vs. governor

by Ilene Grossman ~ October 2017 ~ Stateline Midwest »
A disagreement in Minnesota over tax and budget issues this spring led to a surprising action — a line-item veto by Gov. Mark Dayton of the $130 million appropriation for the House and Senate.
Ever since that move, the legislative and executive branches have been involved in a legal battle centering on constitutional questions about separation of powers. As of early October, the case had made it to the state Supreme Court, but without any final resolution.
“Every governor and legislature will look back on this case and examine the opinion,” says Steven Schier, a professor of political science at Carleton College. “It is likely to have a big impact on the future relationship between the [two] branches.”
Dayton’s line-item veto in May came after the Legislature had adjourned for the year, and because Minnesota legislators do not have the constitutional authority to call a special session, they had no immediate way of overriding his action. (Their first chance would be the 2018 session.)
But what the Legislature could do, and what it did, is take the governor to court. 
In July, a Minnesota District Court judge ruled that Dayton’s action violated the state’s separation-of-powers clause, by “effectively eliminating a co-equal branch of government” (the Legislature) via a line-item veto that stripped the House and Senate of funding between their regular scheduled sessions.
The governor appealed this ruling, and in August, the state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case. A brief filed with the court by the House and Senate said that with his line-item veto, “the governor understood this would put the Legislature out of business for the next two years unless it bent to his will.” 
In September, the court issued an order (but not a final decision) in which it noted that the state Constitution, in “plain language,” gives the governor line-item veto authority. Still open, though, was the legal question of whether Dayton’s use of this constitutional power led to an unconstitutional result, Schier says. 
In their order, the justices noted that the state Constitution requires three branches of government, and because of the political impasse, “Minnesotans may soon be deprived of their constitutional right to three independent branches.”
But the Supreme Court also raised concerns about the constitutionality of the judicial branch ordering the governor to fund the House and Senate. 
“There are conflicting constitutional issues,” Schier says, “and the Supreme Court may be hesitant to make a final decision.” The justices did direct the Legislature and governor to enter into mediation, but after a day and a half, talks broke down.
As of early October, the case remained in the hands of the Supreme Court, with justices asking both parties to file informal briefs about the many constitutional issues involved — for example, separation of powers, the power of the judiciary to order that the House and Senate be funded, and the right of the public to three functioning branches of government.
Whether the Legislature can “function,” too, goes to questions about whether it has sufficient funds to operate even with the line-item veto in place. Legislative leaders and the governor are at odds over how much money is available. The Supreme Court asked both sides to provide additional, informal briefs on available funding sources. A decision was expected sometime in October.


Capital Closeup is an ongoing series of articles focusing on institutional issues in state governments and legislatures.