The Minnesota Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that Gov. Mark Dayton acted within his power when he vetoed the operating budgets of the state House and Senate.
The court, however, declined to rule if the governor was acting in a coercive way when he tried to use his defunding of the Legislature as leverage to get GOP leaders back to the budget bargaining table.
Justices noted the line-item veto power is "expressly conferred" to Minnesota's governors.
"Whether it was wise for the people of Minnesota in 1876 to provide for a veto power over items of appropriation, in language that does not expressly exclude the appropriations for a coordinate branch of government, is not for us to judge," the court wrote.
The court backed Dayton 5-1 with Justice David Stras abstaining. This was the first time in Minnesota history that the state's high court had to rule on one branch of government suing another.
Justices issued their long-awaited ruling as the Legislature began to take emergency steps to at least temporarily avert layoffs and other disruptions as their account balances dwindled.
Dayton applauded the decision and noted the court found the Legislature has access to at least $26 million to continue operating until it reconvenes in February, adding that it was "time for us all to agree that this dispute has been concluded and resume working together for the best interests of Minnesota."
After the court's ruling was posted, GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt said of the justices, "We had hoped they would end this debacle and they did not."
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said he was shocked by the ruling and that the court did not recognize the hardship ahead for the Legislature as the money dries up.
"It's important that the legislative branch have equal power with the governor. Under this situation we don't," Gazelka said. "So, we have to make extraordinary decisions and take money from places that we know we should not, as a result of this decision."
Following the decision, Gazelka and other lawmakers met to take emergency action to replenish the dwindling finances of the House and Senate and prevent expected staff layoffs. They voted to transfer nearly $21 million from a separate legislative branch account.
The Republican-backed resolution making the money transfer also took aim at Dayton and his administration. It prevents any of those funds from being used to make payments on the 2-year-old Minnesota Senate building. Missed payments could put the state's credit rating in jeopardy. But Daudt defended the action.
"The governor has line-item vetoed the money that would pay the debt service on that Senate building," he said. "I am not looking under my couch cushions to find a way out of that for the governor. He needs to understand that his decisions do have consequences."
A separate resolution was passed that prohibits legislative staff from assisting the executive branch in preparing legislation.
DFL Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk cautioned against the moves. Given the prolonged legal fight, Bakk told Republicans they were making a bad situation worse.
"This will be the biggest do-nothing session we've ever seen if this environment that we're in between the Legislature and the executive branch is still as toxic as it is today on Ferbuary 20," Bakk said.
With a temporary funding fix now in place, Republicans are planning to pass a permanent solution quickly next session. Dayton could choose to veto that funding too.
GOP House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin urged a united front for such a scenario.
"If the House and Senate Democrats will join with the House and Senate Republicans and override the governor's veto all of these problems will go away. We will be able to fund all of our operations," Peppin said.
The fight began in May when Dayton signed the new, two-year state budget but used line-item vetoes to wipe out $130 million to operate the House and Senate. He left intact a separate pool to run joint offices, such as the legislative auditor.