Minnesota cage match, 2017 edition (4)

I have been following the ongoing cage match between Minnesota Democratic Governor Mark Dayton and Minnesota’s majority-Republican House and Senate in this series. It’s an interesting story that deserves national attention as a sign of the political times.

At the end of this year’s slightly extended legislative session Dayton signed all tax and budget bills. He could have vetoed any of them. Even though he professed extreme unhappiness with certain items, he signed the bills The package of budget, tax and state government bills that finally passed reflected compromises on the part of all participants including Dayton and his commissioners.

As a result of his unhappiness with certain items, however, Governor Dayton exercised his authority to veto budgetary line items to wipe out the funding of the legislative branch. Dayton explained himself in the letter posted here.

Dayton demanded that Republicans revisit selected issues on his terms after they had already given ground elsewhere to arrive at the bills that were sent to him for his signature and adjourned. Unlike some other Republicans I can think of on the national scene, they weren’t inclined to make fools of themselves.

In the letter Dayton described one provision of the special session state government finance bill as “treachery.” Dayton to the contrary notwithstanding, however, the provision was included in every draft of the bill shared with the governor’s administration. The bill was made publicly available online at 6:00 a.m. on May 24 and was sent directly to the governor’s senior staff prior to being made public. The legislature allowed for public review of the bill for more than 36 hours prior to passage on May 25 at 8:00 p.m. In addition to the ample time the governor had to review the bill, Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans and the governor’s senior staff discussed the bill language with legislative staff on numerous occasions and never raised this provision as a point of concern.

Dayton’s decision to strike legislative funding is another matter. The governor can’t do that, can he?

In search of the answer, the legislature took Governor Dayton to court. In asking a judge to weigh in on the issue of whether one branch can wipe out another, the thought is likely to occur that the judiciary might be next. It’s an obvious point and one that did not escape Ramsey County Judge John Guthmann, to whom the case had been assigned.

The legislature’s current funding expired on July 1. In an interim ruling last month Judge Guthmann required continued funding for the legislature through October 1. He drew on the Minnesota Constitution to support his ruling. “If the legislative branch is not funded, it cannot carry out its core functions, which include those functions necessary to draft, debate, publish, vote on and enact legislation,” Judge Guthmann wrote. The interim ruling foretold Judge Guthmann;s final decision in the case, ruling against Dayton on constitutional grounds. Judge Guthmann’s order and supporting memorandum are posted here.

Governor Dayton appealed Judge Guthmann’s ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which accepted review on an expedited basis and heard oral argument of the governor’s appeal yesterday morning. The Minnesota Supreme Court has posted video of the oral argument here. (Justice Stras recused himself from the case.) The argument went for about 80 minutes; the video picture cut out on my viewing for about the last half.

Based on the oral argument, it seems clear to me that the Supreme Court is poised to reverse Judge Guthmann’s ruling and remand the case to Judge Guthmann for an order funding the legislature’s core functions beyond October 1 for as long as necessary. If and when Governor Dayton prevails on appeal, he can be expected to call a special session of the legislature specifically limited to revisiting provisions of the state government finance bill that he found objectionable.

Governor Dayton appointed four of the Minnesota Supreme Court’s seven justices. The playing field is tilted in his favor. Even so, former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Sam Hanson did an excellent job arguing the case on behalf of the governor. He got away with characterizing Dayton’s line item veto as an “invitation” to negotiation and a lot of argument that begged the question, but he held his ground and drew on authority exactly where he had to.

Minnesota attorney Doug Kelley represented the legislature. I thought the highlight of Kelley’s argument came when he sat down, but he sat down too late. As a matter of style, Kelley erred in habitually prefacing his response to the justices’ questions with: “Listen.” As a matter of substance, Kelley virtually gave his case away in the course of his argument.

I have seen this as a case that highlights the most offensive features of Governor Dayton’s public character and that lays the groundwork for one-man rule in the event of his success. I still think that is the reality of the case. Governor Dayton’s prospective victory represents a disappointing outcome that is only slightly offset by the prospect of an entertaining special session of the legislature.

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