Jim Dey: Illinois leaders have nothing on Gopher State's politicians

Jim Dey: Illinois leaders have nothing on Gopher State's politicians

People who follow Illinois politics think Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan hold each other in mutual contempt. And they're right.

But compared with the political war between the Democratic governor and Republican legislature in Minnesota, Rauner and Madigan are carrying on a sizzling bromance.

On May 30, angered over policy differences on taxes, Gov. Mark Dayton abolished the state legislature. Two weeks ago, state Judge John Guthmann ruled that Dayton's action is "null and void" because it represents an unconstitutional attack on the sanctity of mandated separation of powers that establish independent executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

Still vexed, Dayton immediately announced an appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Calling the district court's ruling "only a preliminary step in this case's judicial process," Dayton said it is "unfortunate that Republican legislative leaders are using this ruling to avoid completing their work by correcting their serious errors in the last legislative session."

But what Dayton is calling the GOP's "serious errors" includes tax provisions that he allowed to become law as part of the new state budget that became effective July 1.

It's a dizzy affair, but not one without precedent in this country's often tempestuous, acrimony-filled democratic processes in Congress and the 50 states.

Illinois has had its own battles over executive and legislative authority. Former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn a few years ago withheld legislators' paychecks as a means of inducing them to act on his legislative proposals. A Chicago judge ordered that legislators be paid.

Last year, Republican Comptroller Leslie Munger declined to put legislators first in line for payment of their salaries, saying they should wait for their turn just like other state creditors. Once again, a judge ordered legislators be immediately paid.

But the Minnesota battle goes well beyond that — with the stroke of his pen, the governor wiped out the political opposition.

This dispute stems from what Dayton described as "so-called budget bills'' that he signed into law "to forestall a bitter June showdown over a state government shutdown." Dayton had "very major objections" to tax provisions in the legislation but agreed to allow them to become law because of what he called a "poison pill" Republicans "snuck into the state government bill."

That poison pill defunded the state's revenue department if the tax bill did not become law.

Needing leverage to force Republicans to attend a "special (legislative) session" to undo the tax provisions, Dayton used his line-item veto authority to wipe out the legislature's funding for the next two years.

"I will allow a special session only if you agree to remove" the tax provisions that "are extremely destructive to Minnesota's future," Dayton said.

Democrat Dayton defended his position on the narrow grounds that he was exercising his constitutional authority (the line-item veto) as a means of settling an executive/legislative policy squabble on his terms. In other words, he said, it's politics as usual.

Republicans took a broader view, asserting that the governor was using a constitutional means (the line-item veto) to achieve an unconstitutional result (wiping out the separation of powers).

Guthmann examined the issue from an even broader point of view: If a governor can wipe out the legislative branch by vetoing its budget, can he do the same to the judicial branch?

In a 22-page decision that is a tour de force, Guthmann concluded that Dayton had stepped well beyond the executive branch's constitutional bounds.

Citing principles that go as far back as the Federalist Papers, Guthmann noted that the separation-of-powers doctrine is fundamental to protecting the people from their government because "when the government's power is concentrated in one of its branches, tyranny and corruption will result."

So, Guthmann asked, "Did the vetoes effectively abolish the legislature? For several reasons, the court answers, 'Yes.'"

Without funding, Guthmann said the legislature cannot function — legislators and staffers can't be paid, supplies can't be purchased, working space can't be rented. Further, legislators can't conduct meetings with constituents, research and draft legislation or conduct hearings.

Dayton's defense is that he doesn't really want to abolish the legislature, that his real end game is "to force legislation to repeal certain tax policy measures" that are "unrelated to the vetoed appropriations."

But, Guthmann ruled, by misusing his line-item veto power to "effectively (eliminate) a co-equal branch of government," Dayton violated the separation-of-powers guarantee contained in the Minnesota Constitution.

That's bad news for Dayton. But it's good news for Illinoisans because it proves this state's politicians still have a ways to go before their self-destructive political battles hit rock bottom.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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