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Unallotment unusual, but known in Capitol

ST. PAUL -- Roots of the word "allot" go back centuries in English, French and German languages.

"Unallot," on the other hand, hardly can be found in a dictionary. But it is the most popular -- or unpopular, depending upon a person's political persuasion -- in the Minnesota Capitol these days.

When Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty last week announced he would take matters into his own hands and cut spending if he and legislative leaders did not agree on a budget by lawmakers' constitutional midnight Monday deadline, he said he would use an executive power little known outside of the Capitol complex. The power, known as unallotment, was created in 1939 when Harold Stassen was governor to give the chief executive an ability to trim the state spending when revenues fall, especially near the end of a two-year budget cycle.

Without unallotment, the state budget could fall into deficit if revenues fall short of spending. And the state constitution forbids deficits.

Unallotment has been used just four times -- by Govs. Al Quie in 1980, Rudy Perpich in 1986, Pawlenty in 2003 and Pawlenty late last year. The most unallotted was Pawlenty's 2003 $281 million cut.

But those unallotment figures, as big as they are to the average Minnesotan, pale in comparison to what Pawlenty says he will do without a budget deal with the Legislature. With nearly $3 billion in budget bills left unfunded, and having cut less than $400 million by line-item vetoes, the governor is faced with chopping more than $2.5 billion from budget proposals legislators passed in recent days.

There is quiet talk in Capitol hallways of suing over Pawlenty's use of unallotment. Courts have upheld the traditional form of unallotment, as revenues fall near the end of the budget cycle, but since Pawlenty's plan is new, it is unchallenged in court.

Technically, before unallotment occurs, the finance commissioner must determine "that probable receipts for the general fund will be less than anticipated, and that the amount available for the remainder of the biennium will be less than needed. ..." In this case, that should be no problem obtaining because Commissioner Tom Hanson is a Pawlenty appointee.

A House Research report prepared last year says state law is somewhat vague in how the commissioner determined the need for unallotment.

While the commissioner must tell legislative leaders about the unallotment, lawmakers have no say in what spending is cut.

The House Research report says it appears that state budget reserves must be used before money is unallotted, but that is not clear. It also appears that the governor cannot unallot legislative and court budgets.

The House study indicates unallotment authority is broad, but there may be constitutional limits that courts have yet to decide.

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Daily Globe.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.