Dane Smith on Pawlenty's legacy: Alas, he dwelled on his own potential

  • Article by: DANE SMITH
  • Updated: December 18, 2010 - 6:04 PM

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaks at the Republican Statesman's Dinner on Friday, June 25, 2010 in Nashville, Tenn.

Photo: Mark Humphrey, Associated Press

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Tim Pawlenty has been a powerful governor. But what hath Pawlenty wrought?

Less spending and lower taxes -- but also partisan inflexibility, chronic budget crises, economic stagnation and inequality.

Eight years ago, as Gov.-elect Pawlenty was preparing to take office, a gaggle of State Capitol media types debated whether this talented young man might have the right stuff to walk the national stage.

Some hooted at such premature speculation. But as a reporter assigned to Pawlenty's 2002 campaign, and with some experience judging political horse-flesh, I was impressed.

I argued that he would indeed go far, that he had the intellectual capacity and street smarts (some would later call it manipulative cynicism).

He had physical vigor, neighborly wit, a lovely family, and he looked nice on TV. I thought he exuded a confident competence that could make him the first Minnesotan since Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey to be strongly considered by his party for vice president or president.

He came close to the VP nomination in 2008 and typically is ranked among the top prospects for the 2012 Republican nomination. For those reasons alone, he stands among the most significant Minnesota governors of modern times.

More important, Pawlenty has at least temporarily altered our state in crucial ways, and must be rated one of the most effective governors in imposing his will on Minnesota, ranking up there with DFLer Wendell Anderson in the early 1970s.

But in the end he has not been as good a governor -- neither the constructive, consensus-building leader, nor as popular -- as fellow Republican Arne Carlson was in the 1990s.

That's largely because Pawlenty ratcheted ever more extreme and ideological in his second term. He courted the rigid interest groups that influence presidential selection and neglected the few moderate initiatives he launched in his first term.

We can't escape the fact that Pawlenty presided over the worst decade economically, for most Minnesotans, since the 1930s. This, of course, is not nearly all his fault.

We're still better off than most states, thanks to previous multipartisan traditions of public investment and to strong local business and government leadership.

But the most damaging statistic for Pawlenty is that Minnesota, relative to other states, generally performed worse in the last decade than it did in four previous decades.

Many Minnesotans are happy that Pawlenty has made it a little harder to get an abortion and much easier to carry a gun.

But serious long-term problems -- sluggish job growth, worsening water quality, an achievement gap for our growing racial minorities, a stagnant overall higher-education attainment rate, rising poverty and inequality -- have gone mostly neglected.

Taxes lower, affluent better off

You don't get what you don't pay for.

From our traditional position among the top 10 states in taxes (and the public investment in schools, health care and transportation infrastructure that those taxes buy), Minnesota under Pawlenty has declined to middle-of-the-pack rankings.

This feat is all the more amazing given that Pawlenty never really had a mandate.

In both 2002 and 2006, majorities of voters opted for his two opponents, who were proposing modest revenue increases.

With thin, veto-upholding minorities in the House and Senate for most of his tenure, Pawlenty stuck to his "no new taxes" pledge and extended and preserved billions of dollars in income tax cut savings, mostly benefiting high-end households, earning heroic status with the Taxpayers League of Minnesota and national conservative groups.

But two full terms after starting with a record budget shortfall, Pawlenty is delivering to his successor (drum roll, please) another record budget shortfall, putting intense pressure on his successors to cut even more.

State income tax rates remain at an all-time modern low, and the most affluent Minnesotans (the top 1 percent) have a larger share of income and wealth than ever.

But consider these costs: Pawlenty's own appointed Supreme Court justices are complaining that there's not enough money to run a fair court system.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, a key Pawlenty operative in 2002, says law enforcement simply can't take more cuts. Parents of disabled children have to pay a larger share of their incomes for basic care.

Art and music have been cut from public schools. Public college tuition is among the highest in the nation.

And state cuts have boosted local property taxes, meaning most Minnesotans are paying more for reduced local services, from police protection to recreation centers.

Taxes overall are less fair than they were in 2002, with the top-enders paying a smaller percentage than the rest of us.

Good stuff in the first term

Pawlenty in his first term distinguished himself as a moderate or even as being "green" on a few key issues.

He pushed through some of the nation's most ambitious renewable-energy goals. He set a goal of ending homelessness in the state, an initiative that was going well until the Great Recession hit.

One feather in his cap is his drive to invest public dollars in the higher-education complex in Rochester, to stimulate growth in the biobusiness sector. Nature lovers are thankful for Vermilion State Park in northern Minnesota, the first big new state park in 30 years.

It's hard to imagine now, but Pawlenty several times in his first term challenged big oil and pharmaceutical companies with proposals that earned him criticism from the lockstep procorporate wing of his party. And despite a couple of miniscandals, Pawlenty appointed quite a few high-quality cabinet officials.

But against those bright spots, Pawlenty's biggest shortcoming is his deviation from a bipartisan tradition in Minnesota, in which at least grudging respect is afforded the other side and the difference is split in the eternal battle between public and private interests.

Many of our most highly regarded governors have been moderates -- Carlson, DFLer Rudy Perpich, Republicans Elmer L. Andersen and Harold Stassen -- who strived to balance the long-term needs of business with the democratic demands of less-successful folks for opportunity and a bigger piece of the pie.

Pawlenty is leaving us an atmosphere that is more polarized, partisan, angrier and less likely to produce compromise solutions.

Perhaps middling tax rankings will suddenly solve all our problems and Pawlenty will be vindicated.

But unless he is elected president or vice president, it seems more likely that he will go down in history as "Tightwad Tim," the 21st-century version of Gov. Theodore "Tightwad Ted" Christianson of the 1920s, who was proud of that label.

But today nobody remembers Tightwad Ted, at least not fondly.

Dane Smith, a fomer Star Tribune political reporter, is president of the think tank Growth and Justice.

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