East Grand Forks City Council mulls joining unallotment lawsuit against Gov. Pawlenty
East Grand Forks may join a lawsuit going after Gov. Tim Pawlenty's unallotments earlier this year, which cut funding to state programs and city funding.
City Council President Dick Grassel brought up the lawsuit because it was recently discussed at a Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, which East Grand Forks is a member. But the likelihood of the city agreeing to spend as much as $10,000 to pay for legal costs was unclear Tuesday.
Under state law, the governor can take unilateral action -- unallotment -- only in the case of unanticipated budget shortfalls. The issue in this potential lawsuit is Pawlenty knew there would be a statewide deficit when he cut more than $2 billion in state programs and funding after his veto of the legislative budget-balancing plan in May -- before the budget's two-year term, which began in July, even started.
City Administrator Scott Huizenga told the council the main benefit of the lawsuit, if won, is East Grand Forks potentially could recoup some of the money it lost in local government aid from the state.
That could be a big check since the city is anticipating losing another $420,000 in LGA funding in 2010.
But he said there are several possible drawbacks besides the cost. It could pave the way for retaliation from lawmakers and also force a special legislative session to redo the budget for the current biennium.
Huizenga said the coalition has estimated legal costs would be $100,000 but has found a firm willing to do it for $50,000. Officials want five cities to sign on, each contributing $10,000, to go ahead with the suit.
There are two lawsuits in the courts that deal with Pawlenty's unallotments. But they may be too specific to also encompass the $200 million in state aid the cities lost this year after the budget cuts.
Several council members seemed to favor getting involved. Mike Pokrzywinski said if the cities don't get involved, they will send the message they're OK with the governor's actions. He said the city shouldn't do it for potential money but rather to show they don't agree with the unallotments.
"The governor acted outside of the accepted process of legislating," he said. "It kind of makes the legislative session unnecessary."
Grassel said retaliation has already happened in some ways to the city because it has lost $800,000 in state funding the past two years.
"I think that we've lost too much, and everybody else in the state has," he said.
Mayor Lynn Stauss argued the Legislature, not the cities, should go after the governor. He said even the coalition has said the case has a 50-50 chance of winning if it goes to court, and they don't know if Pawlenty has upheld the law.
"They've got to prove it's wrong," he said. "They haven't done that."
He said he would veto any council resolution that would involve the city in the lawsuit. If that happened, six of the seven council members would need to vote for the resolution to override his veto.
But council member Marc DeMers said the cities shouldn't stand by just because the Legislature won't go after the governor and argued East Grand Forks should get involved because of the government separation of powers involved in the case.
"We don't live in a place where one person gets to decide," he said.
City Attorney Ron Galstad said he wouldn't give specific advice on what to do but said the case is largely an issue of first impression. "It could go either way because it's never really been dealt with before at this level," he said.
He said a "telltale" sign is the coalition isn't willing to take on the case by itself. But Grassel said that's because the coalition budget doesn't have enough money for the lawsuit.
The council will discuss the matter more at next Tuesday's meeting, which has been moved to 7 p.m., and could vote on a resolution as well.