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Afternoon at the Minnesota Capitol | Steve Timmer photograph
by David Schultz
Jun 5, 2017, 1:30 PM

Minnesota’s constitutional crisis

Note: This cross posted from Schultz’s Take.

Minnesota is in the middle of a constitutional crisis.  As is true with most constitutional crises, it is a crisis precipitated by a political crisis. The political crisis is battle between the legislature and the governor, rooted in political disagreement and polarization, and where it is about ready to engulf the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The constitutional crisis has been long coming.  It is rooted in the change in Minnesota politics that began 20 years ago—perhaps marked when Jesse Ventura won the governorship and the Republicans the House.  That point represented the point when DFL domination in the state since the 1960s ended, and the emergence of Minnesota as a state increasingly torn by the political cultures of urban liberals and rural conservatives.  The DFL has lost its farmer leg, and it is becoming clear that as Trump Democrats have fled the party, it is also losing labor.

Since 1998 special sessions have become the norm—three for every four years—and there were partial or near shutdowns in 2001, 2005, and 2011.  In 2009, Gov. Pawlenty used his unallotment power to balance a budget and end a legislative session.  In all these instances, the Minnesota Courts had to step in to resolve political disputes.  All these instances point both not only to the political forces dividing Minnesota, but all were examples of constitutional crises; specifically, what to do when the political process breaks down and fails to perform according to the procedures outlined in the State Constitution.

Now we have another and more glaring constitutional crisis. It appears to have started on Tuesday, May 30, the when governor announced that he was signing all the budget bills after yet another special session.  Yet, the state constitution gives the governor the right to line-item veto specific budget items. The governor chose to line-item veto the money that would fund the state legislature for the next two years.  The governor said he was doing this for two reasons.  First, he did not like what he called a “poison pill” provision in the tax bill that would defund the Minnesota Department of Revenue if he vetoed that bill.  Second, in a letter to the legislature he said that he would only authorize funding for the legislature’s operation if they agreed to specific changes in the budget bills he signed.  This would necessitate yet another special session.

This battle has triggered a major political and constitutional battle in Minnesota politics.  One constitutional question is whether the legislature can defund a state agency many deem essential without violating the State’s separation of powers or single subject clauses in the constitution.  Conversely, can the governor use his veto to defund the legislature, also without violating this clause?  These constitutional questions form the context for perhaps a major political battle and negotiations, but it is also certain that the Minnesota Supreme Court may be asked to settle these questions, as it looks as if the state legislature is going to the court to sue the governor.

In addition to the legal battles between the governor and the legislature, this week the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld a law passed by the state legislature two years ago that stripped away some of the powers of the State Auditor by giving counties the discretion to hire private auditors.  This legal battle raises separation of powers issues, but also questions regarding the State Constitution’s single-subject rule which mandates that legislation may only incorporate a single-subject.  The law removing some of the Auditor’s powers was included in another larger bill.

While Dayton’s line-item veto is the immediate cause of the constitutional crisis, flagrant violation of the single subject rule by the legislature is the real culprit.  Historically, the single-subject clause and the line-item veto are connected and rooted in fear of legislative mischief that corrupted state legislatures across the country.  Back then state legislatures were hotbeds of graft, corruption, and political shenanigans.  The single-subject rule was adopted in many states, including Minnesota, to prevent voter confusion, log-rolling, and the slipping into major bills extraneous provisions under the cover of darkness.  If the single-subject provision was unable to police the legislature, giving governors a line-item veto would allow them to extract improper appropriation provisions from bills.

The stripping away of the State Auditor’s powers was attached to a larger unrelated bill under the cloak of darkness.  The same can be said about the legislature’s poison pill in the tax bill.  But even if they were not hidden as the Republican legislative leaders contend, they still violated the spirit if not the letter of the single-subject rule.  They also point to how leadership has failed to enforce germaneness rules that would keep policy and appropriation bills separate.  Viewed in this context, the governor’s line-item veto was constitutionally undermined.  Yes, Dayton could have vetoed entire omnibus budget bills, but that would have triggered another political and constitutional crisis in terms of another governmental shutdown.  No matter the choice Dayton chose, there was a constitutional problem.

Viewed in isolation, Dayton’s line-item vetoing of the legislature’s funding is constitutionally wrong.  He cannot use that veto to negate or undermine the authority of another constitutionally-explicit branch of the government—this is a major separation of powers issue.  Yet if the only lawsuit filed is one by the legislature then that may be the decision the Minnesota Supreme Court is forced to bring.  However, there needs also to be a lawsuit brought by legislators—and Senator John Marty is contemplating one—raising the single-subject rule to many of the omnibus bills passed this term.  They should also join the State Auditor in her appeal to the Supreme Court.  Why?  If the Court is given the opportunity to rule on both the line-item veto and the single-subject rule then it would perhaps be able either to join the cases or resolve them in a way that defines the proper limits on what the legislature can do, thereby also drawing lines regarding what the governor can do.  Defining the limits of the single-subject rule and the line-item veto would then also clarify the separation of powers issue.

Of course, the Supreme Court could take another approach-refuse to grant jurisdiction to the Republican challenge to the governor, ruling the matter a political question for them to work out.  While at one time that would have been a viable solution, prior Minnesota court decisions to fund the state during a shutdown, over unallotment authority, and even over the single-subject rule make that option nearly impossible.  The constitutional crisis already has engulfed the state court system and it is not clear it can simply walk away.

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