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Dayton, Swanson oppose senators' suit against court spending power

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's governor and attorney general want a petition filed by four Republican senators claiming the courts have no say in funding state programs during a government shutdown to be tossed out of court.

Democrat Gov. Mark Dayton's attorney filed a court document this morning saying the senators have taken "diametrically opposed positions on the most fundamental constitutional issues," and asks the Minnesota Supreme Court to dismiss the case. The governor's response joins that of Attorney General Lori Swanson, a fellow Democrat, in asking that the case go away.

Sens. Scott Newman of Hutchinson, Warren Limmer of Maple Grove, Sean Nienow of Cambridge and Roger Chamberlain of Shoreview asked that the high court rule that the state Constitution gives full authority to spend money to the Legislature, so if a new budget is not enacted by July 1, the courts should have no say in whether any state programs get money.

A Thursday morning court hearing is planned as Swanson, Dayton and a growing number of state-funded organizations ask a judge to establish a process to continue state funding even without a budget.

A shutdown could happen on July 1 if lawmakers and Dayton do not enact a two-year state budget. Legislators passed a Republican-written budget in the final days of the regular legislative session, but Dayton vetoed the package after lawmakers adjourned on the final day they were allowed to meet.

Dayton wants to spend $35.8 billion, fueled in part by a tax increase, in the next two years. Republicans say they will not approve a budget more than $34 billion.

In order to keep what they consider essential services going after the current budget expires, Swanson and Dayton want court approval for things ranging from providing law enforcement to keeping the governor's official residence operating. Dayton presented a list of services he suggests staying open, with more than a third of the executive branch's employees retaining their jobs.

In the meantime, the senators who filed the suit and other lawmakers are promoting the idea of passing a temporary budget, at a reduced level, to keep government operating until a full budget deal can be reached. However, that would require Dayton's blessing since only he can call a special legislative session for such action to occur.

In Dayton's response to the senators' suit, attorney David Lillehaug writes that the four lawmakers are both inconstant and premature in their request.

Lillehaug, who is working without charging the state, says that since no one the senators are suing has spent funds the Legislature did not appropriate, there is no cause for the suit.

The senators, who filed petitions in both the high court and Ramsey County District Court, claim on one hand the "court has no role" in the ongoing budget impasse but on the other hand ask the court to order Dayton to call a special legislative session to deal with the budget, Lillehaug wrote.

Limmer said the senators could change their court documents at any time and that more lawmakers want to be involved.

"This is nothing but a power grab," Limmer said of the governor's request for some state programs to continue.

While the arguing goes on over who has power to do what, many groups are asking the court to continue their funding after July 1. In recent days, organizations dealing with housing, hospitals, jobs, construction and health-care providers have file court documents.

In the meantime, Dayton and Republican legislative leaders plan to discuss the budget this afternoon, the first time in six days they have met.