ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - The Minnesota Legislature's lawsuit against Gov. Mark Dayton is now in the hands of a Ramsey County judge.
The bitter legal dispute between the Democratic governor and Republican-controlled Legislature had its first hearing Monday in Ramsey County District Court.
Chief Judge John Guthmann is also considering an agreement between the two sides, a "stipulation" in legal jargon, to temporarily fund the Legislature through October while the case plays out in court.
It's unclear when a decision may come.
"He vetoed these provisions to coerce the legislature into concession on unrelated provisions," Doug Kelley, the lead attorney for the Legislature, told Judge Guthmann.
"My client has said we are not going to negotiate while we have a gun to our head."
Dayton's attorney, former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Sam Hanson, said vetoes won't actually -- as Kelley contended -- "obliterate the legislature" because the House and Senate have the right to seek emergency funds for "core, critical" functions as they did in previous government shutdowns.
Judge Guthmann pointed out those previous rulings, made during shutdowns, have never been put to a test by an appeals court.
"It’s the law of Ramsey County, your honor," Hanson said, drawing a round of hearty laughter from the courtroom. "It’s been the law since 2001."
The judge suggested the issue could be settled more quickly out of court with the help of a third party mediator, but both lawyers said they'd rather have a ruling from the court on the constitutionality of Dayton's maneuver.
"Call the balls and strikes, that’s what the court does," Kelley asserted. "And I think they’re clearly, clearly out of bounds."
Hanson agreed a ruling from the court would make a settlement more likely.
"Both sides have a strong belief that either the veto was or was not legal," Hanson remarked. "Until that issue is resolved the legislature -- believing that it is illegal -- is not going to come back and talk."
Kelley cited case law, or previous appellate court findings, the governor's veto power is meant to be narrow in scope. He argued that Dayton went beyond the limits of his powers by vetoing a line that he didn't object to in order to force action on provisions in a different bill.
"He vetoed these provisions to coerce the legislature into concession on unrelated provisions," Kelley said.
But Hanson cited precedent that the court can only review whether the governor's line item veto met the letter of the law -- that it was target at an appropriation rather than a policy issue. He said the courts aren't allowed to delve into the motives behind vetoes.
"What a slippery slope that would be to begin to look at the motive, not only a slippery slope but I think a cliff frankly," Hanson said.
"If you look at the motive then you are into the political discussion, the political reasoning of the governor, which is within his sole discretion so long as he’s acting within the power given to him the constitution."
Kelley noted that the line-item veto power was added to the State Constitution in 1876, but this is the first time since then any governor has used that authority to strip funding from the legislature. The House and Senate have 435 full-time, year-round staff members who could be furloughed in August when budget reserves are exhausted.
Dayton zeroed out the operating budgets for the House and Senate last month in hopes of forcing lawmakers to rework a $650 million tax bill and other measures.
An attorney for the Legislature argued it was a blatant violation of separation of powers. But Dayton's attorney says the governor has broad authority to veto appropriations.
The governor said he felt compelled to let the tax bill become law, despite his objections to it, because of a provision Republican leaders added to the measure that would've cut the Dept. of Revenue's entire budget if the tax bill were vetoed.
Dayton called that part of the tax bill a "poison pill" that caught him by surprise and amounted to a "sneak attack" by the legislature. It would've put 1,300 Revenue Dept. employees out of work, let alone stopped that agency from its main function of collecting taxes and delivering refunds.
That was part of the governor's justification for taking the unprecedented action of nixing the Legislature's operating budget through line-item vetoes.
Kelley told the judge that if Dayton could of vetoed the tax bill, and then gone to the courts to seek emergency funding for the Dept. of Revenue. He noted that's the very same remedy Dayton's legal team is suggesting the legislature can use now.