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Pawlenty to appeal unallotment ruling

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty plans to appeal a judge's ruling that says his unilateral state budget cuts were unconstitutional.

He told reporters at a late-morning Capitol news conference that he "respectfully disagrees" with Judge Kathleen Gearin's Wednesday ruling that orders his administration to restore a $5.3 million program providing medically necessary special diets to thousands of poor Minnesotans.

Pawlenty said the money would resume as soon as possible, but he still will fight the ruling. An appeal, to the state Supreme Court or Appeals Court, could come within days or weeks, he said.

The Republican governor said Gearin should have ordered that the law allowing a governor to make cuts to balance the budget to be clarified, leaving budget decisions up to legislators and the governor.

"The judge dove into this with some relish," he said of Gearin's decision, which came a month and a half after she heard the case.

Gearin's order temporarily forced the Pawlenty administration to restore payments, with another hearing on the topic scheduled for March 1.

Democrats hailed the ruling, saying it proved Pawlenty overstepped his authority when he cut $2.7 billion out of the state budget weeks after the Legislature went home for the year last May.

"I applaud the District Court's opinion to restrain Gov. Pawlenty's mean-spirited decision to deny medically necessary food supplements to vulnerable Minnesotans," said Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, who heads the House Health Care and Human Services Finance Committee. "That program provided over $5 million for life-sustaining diets to 4,300 elderly people and those with disabilities."

Pawlenty said that while he will obey the judge's ruling while he appeals it, he also will reach out to legislative leaders to find another budget solution.

Since Pawlenty made the cuts this summer, the state's budget deficit has worsened, which he said could lead to another round of budget cuts, known as unallotments, if he and lawmakers cannot agree to a deal.

Minnesota operates on a two-year budget, spending about $30 billion. In the first year, which started July 1, most of the $2.7 billion of cuts came from Pawlenty's decision to delay $1.1 billion in payments to school districts.

Pawlenty said that since Democratic-Farmer-Laborite leaders, who control the Legislature, proposed similar delays that he will ask them to formally approve the payment shift. He said that could happen soon after the Legislature begins its 2010 session on Feb. 4 or he could agree to a few-hour-long special session before then. Only the governor can call a special session.

Gearin said Pawlenty overstepped his authority by making the cuts so soon after he signed spending bills into law and vetoed a tax increase. She said state law allows him to make cuts in unexpected economic situations, but in this case he knew fiscal problems existed while the Legislature remained in session.

The Ramsey County chief judge said that Pawlenty's actions removed the Legislature from its constitutional role of appropriating money.

In any case, the actual impact of Gearin's decision may not be significant, Pawlenty said, because lawmakers may end up making many of the same decisions he did.

Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.