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Judge hears unallotment challenge

ST. PAUL - The first of what could be many Minnesota court rulings on Gov. Tim Pawlenty's authority to unilaterally cut the state budget should come within days.

A Ramsey County judge heard arguments on Monday about whether she should temporarily restore $5.3 million to one food program the governor cut as part of his efforts to plug a $2.7 billion budget deficit.

Chief Ramsey Judge Kathleen Gearin did not say when she would rule on the case as she heard arguments from lawyers representing the state and one for a half-dozen people who lost funding for their special diets. Gearin said she would wait to rule until she sees a brief opposing the governor's use of unallotment to be filed by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor-dominated House later this week.

The issue is whether Pawlenty usurped the Legislature's authority to set budgets. More Minnesotans that lost funds could fight Pawlenty in court.

"This is the type of case the courts want to tread very lightly in," Gearin said.

Looking at a courtroom packed with journalists and about 25 others, Gearin said she understands the case is important. "Some of the issues are core to ... the whole basis of our government," she said.

The specific case involves people who lost funding from a $5.3 million program that, in part, provides money for some poor Minnesotans to buy food for special medically needed diets. Pawlenty cut funding for the program when he balanced the state budget after a stalemate with legislative leaders.

Lawyer Galen Robinson of Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance said his clients only receive $700 to $800 a month, and if they take up to $330 out for special diets, they do not have enough to pay for housing and other expenses. He asked Gearin to immediately order the funds restored until she issues a final decision.

Robinson is trying to turn the case into a class-action lawsuit to restore money to others who lost it in unallotment.

Also in court Monday were attorneys for others who lost money in Pawlenty's move as they decide whether to file their own suits against Pawlenty and Budget Commissioner Tom Hanson.

Lawyers for Pawlenty and Hanson told Gearin state law was followed in making the cuts because bills lawmakers passed this year would spend more money than taxes would raise in the two-year budget that began July 1.

While Robinson argued that Pawlenty took spending decisions away from the Legislature by unallotting, Pawlenty's attorney responded by saying he was left with no choice. And the budget situation is not getting better, Patrick Robben said.

"We could be unallotting yet again," he told Gearin.

The state just does not have enough money to pay for everything, Robben said.

"We think the governor overreached here," Robinson countered.

Several legislative options remained for Pawlenty to fix the budget when he made cuts on his own, Robinson said. For instance, two legislative sessions remain in the two-year budget, and the governor could call a special session to fix the problem.

Monday's court hearing is far from the end. Regardless of Gearin's decision, she still needs to schedule a trial on the meal funding issue, as well as another social services program that Pawlenty cut. On top of that, others affected by the cuts may go to court.

Earlier Monday, the Democratic-controlled state House Rules Committee voted 14-8 along party lines to send Gearin a brief saying it agreed with Robinson that the governor should not have taken the unallotment path. Republicans strongly argued that the brief was a political document and the state should not fund such legal paperwork, but Committee Chairman Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, disagreed.

"I don't think there is anything political about standing up for our constitution," he said.