Local officials say they won’t take immediate action after Pawlenty ruling

Published 6:51 am Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Though a Minnesota judge possibly opened the door to a number of legal challenges last week when she ruled that the governor “crossed the line” in cutting billions from the state budget on his own, local officials have no immediate plans to take action.

The ruling from Ramsey County District Judge Kathleen Gearin only deals directly with a small slice of $2.7 billion in cuts Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced this summer through the power of unallotment. But her accompanying explanation criticizes his strategy to slice the budget without input from the Legislature.

That explanation could invite challenges from cities, counties or other groups that lost money. However, neither the city of Austin nor Mower County is set to do that independently at this time.

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Instead, each body is waiting on larger, state-level groups for guidance.

For the city, that means looking toward the League of Minnesota Cities, city administrator Jim Hurm said.

Though Hurm said he was ethically opposed to the more than $1.2 million cut from Austin in June, he acknowledged there might not be much the League can do. That’s because a successful lawsuit could still result in zero dollars for local governments given the state’s dire financial status — Minnesota currently faces a projected $5.4 billion budget shortfall.

And even if cities did get money back via a legal challenge, a future unallotment could erase that.

“It’s a tightrope you walk here,” Hurm said of challenging the state. “You have to use good judgment.”

Gary Carlson, a LMC lobbyist, said the organization is still deciding on its course of action.

He said the League’s board is set to discuss how involved they want to get with legal challenges during a Jan. 21 meeting.

Carlson said the League did discuss the possibility of a legal challenge soon after Pawlenty’s June unallotment, and he noted that the board generally agreed a challenge would have merit.

However, like Hurm, Carlson said even a success in court might not mean anything for cities because of the state’s lack of funds.

“What do we win if we win?” the lobbyist said.

And Carlson said the chances of winning in court might have lessened when the state announced its poor budget projection in November. That’s because a judge might be more likely to decide that Pawlenty’s cuts were in fact necessary — and constitutional — given the dire outlook.

But that doesn’t mean the League will remain entirely quiet. If Pawlenty appeals Gearin’s ruling as expected, Carlson said the LMC might file briefs against the governor.

“Presumably, cities would be in support of challenging the governor,” Carlson said.

Like the city, Mower County is also looking for outside guidance. County coordinator Craig Oscarson said the county will likely follow the lead of the Association of Minnesota Counties.

However, Oscarson did say the county board may discuss the possibility of taking up an independent challenge at a future meeting.

Currently, the AMC does not have any plans to challenge the state, executive director Jim Mulder said.

Mulder said there are a couple of points of concern in going forward with legal action.

For one, like Hurm and Carlson, he said a win in court might be a “hollow victory” that would not restore funding.

Secondly, Mulder said he is concerned with using public tax dollars to sue the state, which in turn would use more public dollars to defend itself.

The bigger issue, Mulder said, is examining a broken relationship between the state, cities and counties. He said what transpires is often an unnecessary amount of busywork trying to get the three in-sync — time that could be spent better delivering services.

“The current system is not sustainable,” Mulder said. “We are entering into a new world where resources are tight.”

The executive director added, “We think there are countless places to look at (for solutions).”