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Court says Minnesota Legislature has enough money to remain open

Minnesota legislative leaders listen to Senate Secretary Cal Ludeman on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017, as they consider how to react to a governor's veto of Legislature funding. From left are Assistant Senate Majority Leader Gary Dahms of Redwood Falls, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka of Nisswa, Senate President Michelle Fischbach of Paynesville, House Speaker Kurt Daudt of Crown, House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin of Rogers and Rep. Chaska. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 3
Minnesota Senate Secretary Cal Ludeman tells legislative leaders on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017, that the Senate has a little more than a month of money left after Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the Legislature's funding on May 30. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 3
Minnesota Senate President Michelle Fischbach of Paynesville and House Speaker Kurt Daudt of Crown get in a laugh before a Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017, meeting in which legislative leaders discussed the goveror's veto of Legisalture funding. Don Davis / Forum News Service3 / 3

ST. PAUL — Minnesota legislative leaders say they will limp along to the 2018 legislative session by taking money from a House-Senate commission.

But, they said, they will need to immediately pass a legislative budget once they return to St. Paul Feb. 20.

The comments came Thursday, Nov. 16, just after the Minnesota Supreme Court allowed to stand Gov. Mark Dayton's veto of the Legislature's $130 million two-year budget.

The Legislative Coordinating Commission, made up of legislative leaders of both chambers and both parties, on Thursday approved taking money from the joint legislative organization's carry-over funds and for money appropriated for 2019 so the House and Senate can remain in business through the start of session. Offices under the LCC do things like write bills and audit state programs.

Leaders said they will need to pass a new budget right after they return on Feb. 20.

If Dayton signs the bill, which likely would repay the LCC and fund normal operations, the money would begin to flow in February. If the Democratic governor vetoes funds for the Republican-controlled Legislature, lawmakers from both parties would have to vote to override the veto if funding is to resume.

A majority of justices upheld Dayton's May 30 veto and decided to send the case back to a district court judge to dismiss the case.

Justices said they believe the Legislature has enough money to reach its next session.

But even with $20 million in LCC funds, legislative leaders say they barely have enough money to last through the session's opening day. They said they are not sure just what they will need to curtail during that time, but House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he expects bans on mileage and other expenses to remain in place.

"The governor has decided to tie the Legislature's hands, and the court supported it," Deputy Senate Majority Leader Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said.

Leaders were surprised with the decision, saying they expected the court to approve funding for their continued operation.

"I am disappointed Gov. Dayton and the Supreme Court forced us to use funds intended for vital non-partisan purposes in order to prevent the governor’s elimination of the Legislature," House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, said.

"This is a fiasco for Minnesota," added Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa.

Five high court justices wrote that the Dayton legislative budget veto was constitutional, although Justice G. Barry Anderson disagreed and Justice David Stras did not take part in the decision. Stras has been nominated to serve as a federal judge.

The majority of justices said the state Constitution does not allow them to order the Legislature to be funded, but "the record establishes that the Legislature has funding to sustain it until it reconvenes in regular session."

While the Legislature's lawsuit contends the Dayton veto basically eliminated the Legislature, the justices wrote that a lower court was wrong when it concluded that the Legislature would run out of money before next session.

The Supreme Court's ruling said, however, that the lower court did not know about LCC funding, which the Legislature could use.

"The factual question this case presents is whether the Legislature has the funding needed to exercise its constitutional duties on behalf of Minnesota’s citizens while it is in an interim adjournment and until it reconvenes," the justices wrote. "We conclude that it does."

Dayton said his veto of the two-year legislative budget was an attempt to get lawmakers to return to a special session and remove five provisions in bills he already had signed, especially dealing with taxes,

Republicans who control the Legislature refused to resume negotiations on bills Dayton had signed into law and sued the governor, saying he essentially eliminated the Legislature with his veto.

The Supreme Court earlier ordered the two sides into mediation, which failed after a few days of talks.

After Thursday's court ruling, Dayton said he was pleased with the outcome, adding that  lawmakers wasted state money by filing the lawsuit.

"So it is time for us all to agree that this dispute has been concluded and resume working together for the best interests of Minnesota," Dayton said.

It did not sound like Daudt was ready to give up on the long-standing dispute.

"I think this governor needs to be held accountable for his actions," the speaker said.

Gazelka said he thinks the court decision will be felt beyond Minnesota. "I think it will ripple across the country."

The fear of many legislators is that the ruling will give governors more power.

Legislative leaders voted Thursday to refuse to let legislative staff members help the Dayton administration prepare bills and do other work leading up to the session. They also decided not to make payments on the new Minnesota Senate Building, blaming Dayton for the Legislature lacking funds to pay.

The building is "owned" by the administration, with the Senate making payments to lease it.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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