Court weighs Minn. budget spat as shutdown looms

Published 12:41 pm Thursday, June 23, 2011

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The budget dispute between Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican state lawmakers moved into a courtroom Thursday, with a judge considering the size and scope of a looming government shutdown.

Ramsey County Chief Judge Kathleen Gearin opened the hearing by denying Dayton’s request to order stalled budget talks into mediation and ruling against four Republican senators who argued that court involvement in the budget process would violate the constitutional separation of powers.

Gearin called the lack of agreement on a new state budget “far more sweeping a crisis and more significant an issue than ever before.”

Email newsletter signup

Most of Minnesota state government will close starting July 1 if the governor and Legislature don’t enact a new state budget. It would be the state’s second shutdown in six years, and the closure would be more extensive than the partial shutdown in 2005.

“That puts this into a constitutional disagreement of extreme importance. It is not easy for anyone involved. It raises issues of separation of powers that are at the core of our government,” Gearin said.

She added that she doesn’t plan to rule Thursday on which state services would continue during a shutdown.

Gearin immediately denied Dayton’s move for mediation, which was opposed by lawyers for the Republican-controlled Legislature and Attorney General Lori Swanson, a Democrat.

Dayton’s lawyer, David Lillehaug, said alternative dispute resolution has been used in cases including a dispute over light rail between the University of Minnesota and the Metropolitan Council.

House attorney Eric Magnuson said mediation would be “completely contradictory to the Minnesota Constitution and the separation of powers.”

The judge said she had been considering the issue for several days and concluded that the executive and legislative branches of government have “institutional competency” to resolve the budget impasse.

Meanwhile, the petition from Republican Sen. Warren Limmer and three colleagues pushed to keep the court from ordering critical state services to continue in a shutdown, arguing that such a move would usurp the Legislature’s authority to appropriate state funds. Gearin said the senators didn’t have standing beyond already being represented by an attorney for the full Senate.