Lori Sturdevant: Let's consider the Pawlenty legacy: A $6.2 billion deficit

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 4, 2010 - 7:24 PM

That's not how the governor portrays it, of course, and frankly that takes a lot of nerve.

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Gov. Tim Pawlenty

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Gov. Tim Pawlenty's self-congratulatory performance Thursday in response to that day's whale-of-a-deficit state budget forecast sent me to the dictionary to check the meaning of the word "chutzpah."

"Supreme self-confidence: nerve, gall," Merriam-Webster Online said.

If chutzpah isn't a fitting label for the show in the governor's reception room, it surely comes close. It also may be apt for the temperament required for a governor who has presided over eight years of persistent fiscal trouble to mount a bid for the presidency.

No other governor in Minnesota's 152-year history has handed his successor a $6.2 billion deficit forecast along with the keys to the Capitol's executive suite. But if Pawlenty has any remorse or regrets about passing that much trouble along to the next occupant, he didn't display them. Instead, he boasted that he was ending his watch with the state "on the right track" and with "money in the bank."

That bank balance would be the $399 million forecast to remain on the state's bottom line come June 30. It's there in large part because of an extension of federal Medicaid help to the states earlier this year. But to hear Pawlenty describe it, you'd think he'd engineered shrewd accounting moves to keep state books in the black.

Though Thursday's numbers foretold a worsening problem in 2012-13, Pawlenty pronounced it "very manageable." He allowed that most of it would have vanished already if his old nemeses, the DFLers who controlled the 2009-10 Legislature, would have done his bidding.

Even though the 2010 Legislature gave its blessing to virtually all of the spending cuts and shifts Pawlenty imposed unilaterally (and, it turned out, illegally) in 2009, it deviated from the governor's script in one respect. The cuts were designed to boomerang back for reconsideration by a new governor and the 2011 Legislature. (Those crafty DFLers didn't anticipate that in the 2011 Legislature, they would be in the minority.)

But if the Legislature had made the Pawlenty unallotments permanent, only about a third of Thursday's forecasted problem would be erased -- not most of it, as Pawlenty claimed. A nasty $4 billion would remain.

Pawlenty sketched a predictable prescription for his successors to follow: no new taxes; cuts in public employee pensions and compensation; restructuring of government services; drastic cuts in state health care spending.

That, in broad strokes, is the same program Pawlenty has pitched since 2003. What's notable as he prepares to decamp for Iowa and New Hampshire is how much of it remains unaccomplished.

Yes, Pawlenty repeatedly blocked DFL-backed tax increases. And he faced DFL opposition to his ideas in at least one legislative chamber throughout his two terms. But the unfinished business includes functions well within the executive branch's control. A consolidation of state agency back-office operations has been discussed but has not proceeded. The streamlining of business permitting processes has begun but has a long way to go.

Pawlenty also bragged Thursday about the brakes he put on state spending growth. Minnesota, he said, has the seventh-lowest annual average state spending increase since 2003 -- 0.81 percent.

His critics give him even more credit as a spending hawk. According to the progressive think tank Minnesota 2020, state government is spending 7.1 percent less per capita in 2010-11 than it was in 2002-03, adjusting for inflation.

Pawlenty linked that restraint to Minnesota's continued standing as a high-employment state, a position it has held relative to the rest of the nation almost continuously since World War II. Minnesota's unemployment rate stands 2.7 percentage points lower than the national average.

State economist Tom Stinson said Thursday that there's one overriding reason that's so, and it's not lower state spending. It's a highly productive workforce.

Raising taxes on the people who provide jobs won't encourage them to hire here. But neither will schools that operate only four days per week, universities that lay off faculty by the score, cities that cut back police and fire services, and a rising population without health insurance.

Pawlenty's squeeze on state spending would be worth crowing about if it had been accomplished without those negative consequences. But evidence to the contrary has mounted, and will likely keep mounting next year as national interest in Pawlenty's record grows.

Yet it's doubtful that such evidence will much matter to a national party that seems to value tax restraint over every other aspect of governing performance. And it was clear on Thursday that Pawlenty already has a Washington-worthy knack for putting a positive spin on whatever bad news comes.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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