The Executive Branch, How Much Power to the States?

Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s decision in 2009 to balance the state budget through unallotment made for a yearlong political drama. Folks divided along ideological and partisan lines, making hay out of unallotment to score political points. Case in point: Bob Carney Jr.’s recent commentary (“Think you’ve heard last of unallotment?” July 24) that imagines a Tom Emmer unallotment scenario–and, boy, is it imaginative.

Not knowing who will be the next governor, it’s a good time to remove ideological blinders and reconsider what type of executive authority is appropriate in a fiscal crisis. Next year’s $5.7 billion deficit could certainly use some fresh thinking.

When the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in May that Pawlenty’s use of unallotment exceeded his authority, it effectively reinstated the old political calculations that biennium after biennium prod the governor and the Legislature to reach a balanced budget agreement. But these agreements often turn out to be bad policy because the negotiations get corrupted by gridlock, political positioning, short-term thinking, last-minute deals and special-interest handouts.

Legality aside, the governor’s move to unilaterally solve the budget deficit revealed a path to a balanced budget that mitigates many of these problems. When the state is drowning in red ink, maybe the state’s chief executive should be empowered to act more independently.

At America’s founding, citizens were naturally wary of granting a governor or the president too much power due to a history of repression by the British monarchy. However, Alexander Hamilton warned against a “feeble executive” and said that federal and state governments needed an “energetic Executive.”

Of course, a degree of feebleness, institutionalized into our system of checks and balances, is what we want. The need to deliberate and then deliberate some more adds a measure of wisdom to the lawmaking process.

However, as Hamilton noted, there are circumstances where decisiveness may be more important than deliberation. Natural disaster is an obvious example.

Minnesota’s budget also may be the sort of circumstance that requires decisiveness from the chief executive that state law does not provide for. “Feeble” is certainly a fair depiction of Minnesota lawmakers’ efforts to balance recent budgets.

The trick is getting the right balance. Here are a few ideas:

  • First, the Legislature could direct the executive branch to decide how to reduce spending subject to certain constraints. For instance, Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, proposed a bill in the 2010 session that directed the commissioner of the state budget office to reduce state spending by specific dollar amounts for various categories of spending.
  • Second, we could allow the governor to veto partial amounts of appropriations. Currently, the governor can veto only an entire appropriation under the constitution’s line-item veto authority. With a partial veto, a governor could take a more fine-tuned approach.
  • Third, we could require a supermajority vote in the Legislature to pass a budget larger than the governor’s proposed budget.

These ideas are by no means a complete answer, but they might contribute to a sounder budget agreement.

Peter Nelson is a policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.

This commentary originally appeared in the Star Tribune on August 8, 2010. 

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