Gov. Mark Dayton invited a high-stakes constitutional clash Tuesday by signing bills that will fund the executive branch while eliminating funding for the Legislature, leaving lawmakers with dwindling cash to continue operations.
A lawsuit is likely, said House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown: “I would expect legal action forthcoming very soon,” to challenge what he said was an unconstitutional attack on the legislative branch.
Dayton signed the 10 budget bills that will go into the state’s next two-year, $46 billion budget, including money for schools, health care, parks, public safety and other government services.,
Despite an earlier announcement that he would let the $650 million tax-cut bill become law without his signature, Dayton issued a statement just before 11 p.m. saying he had signed it, while remaining opposed to some of its key provisions.
But while one hand signed the bills, the other hurled a constitutional thunderbolt at the legislative branch.
The constitutional conflict is the latest chapter in an ongoing struggle between the DFL governor — re-elected by a comfortable margin in 2014 — and a Republican-controlled Legislature whose leaders believe they are representing the people’s will.
Since 2015, the two sides have fought over the size and scope of government.
Dayton said his unorthodox move to defund the Legislature was a response to what he called a “reprehensible sneak attack” in which the Legislature inserted a provision in a budget bill that would withhold funding for the Department of Revenue unless the governor signed its package of tax cuts.
Dayton called it “last-minute legislative treachery” that improperly threatened his executive power. Daudt called the measure “an insurance policy” to prevent Dayton from vetoing the tax package, as he did in 2016.
The conflict will now play out in two theaters: the courts and the media.
In addition to promising legal action, lawmakers will seek to lobby Minnesotans. “I think we’ll make our case in the court of public opinion. I think people want three branches of government,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said.
“I don’t know how he can defund the people’s voice,” the Nisswa Republican said.
The Senate budget is about $30 million and is carrying a reserve of about $3 million, Gazelka said.
The House budget is roughly twice that and has a reserve of about $7 million, Daudt said, meaning both chambers would run out of money in a matter of months — especially in the case of a protracted legal fight. Most of the money to fund the Legislature goes to pay lawmakers and the staff required to do their work.
Dayton read a three-page letter at an early evening news conference in which he said he would call the Legislature back into session and restore their funding if they agreed to certain conditions, most involving the tax bill that he said would “decimate our future financial solvency.”
He said he is signing all the budget bills to prevent a protracted budget stalemate that could lead to a government shutdown.
“I understand the enormous uncertainties and disruptions that even the threat of another shutdown would cause for many thousands of Minnesotans,” Dayton wrote in his letter to legislative leaders.
But then he used his line-item veto authority, which allows him to veto individual appropriations, to strike funding for the Legislature.
Dayton said he required certain conditions — an act cheered by Dayton partisans as hard-nosed negotiating moxie, and condemned by Republicans as constitutional extortion.
Among his demands: Significant changes to the tax bill, including eliminating tax cuts for cigarette and cigar smokers, which he called “especially galling and indefensible”; canceling a tax cut for wealthy estates; and striking a provision that would cut business property taxes by significant amounts over the long term.
Dayton said he would insist that lawmakers strike newly passed language in the public safety budget that would prohibit the state from granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
He also wants repeal of a new measure in the education budget that would loosen teacher licensing standards in an attempt to reverse the teacher shortage.
Labor and immigrant rights and other progressive groups were furious about these and other measures and called on Dayton over the weekend to veto the entire budget.
Republican legislative leaders say Dayton is breaking agreements, especially on the issues of driver’s licenses and teacher standards.
“I’m personally disappointed in the governor’s behavior surrounding this whole end of session and resolving it in this way,” Daudt said. “The issues the governor has outlined that he wants changed, some of those, from his lips to my ears, he personally has agreed to. More disappointing than his behavior on this issue is the fact that he is going back on his word,” Daudt said.
Gazelka, who has been the most conciliatory of the GOP leadership and developed the best relationship with Dayton, said he would keep trying: “Is trust ruined? I don’t think so.”
J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042