Taking credit for state's budget surplus

  • Article by: D.J. TICE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 3, 2011 - 4:20 PM

Who doesn't love an economic uptick? The politicians sure do. They always take credit, whether they deserve to or not.

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Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, left, and Amy Koch, Senate Majority Leader.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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"This forecast is terrific news for Minnesota," crowed Gov. Mark Dayton on Thursday, touting the state's surprisingly positive new budget projections.

"Minnesota," he added, "has returned to its accustomed place of leading the nation's economy, rather than lagging behind it, as during the previous few years."

Dayton's understandable chest-pounding is a fine example of a strangely common political phenomenon -- in which politicians or advocates send out a spin statement accompanying some report and in it contradict what the report itself says.

It's not that Dayton is stretching things when he says the new forecast shows that Minnesota is back to outpacing the U.S. economy. That is in fact the most welcome and striking thing the report confirms.

But the notion that the state had been "lagging behind" the nation "in the previous few years" is a different story.

In fact, what the report makes clear is this: Looking as far back as 2008, Minnesota weathered the Great Recession better than the nation as a whole.

Bad as it's been, employment fell less here (by 5.5 percent, compared with 6.3 percent nationally) and Minnesota has recovered its lost jobs quicker (35 percent of them here, compared with 22 percent nationally).

"Minnesota's economy struggled during the Great Recession," the forecast analysis says, "... [b]ut the economic downturn appears to have been less severe in Minnesota than nationally, and the recovery somewhat stronger."

Dayton, of course, has reason to suggest that Minnesota's above-average performance in tough times just started recently -- in about January, say, when he took office.

It has long been a favorite refrain of DFLers that Dayton's predecessor (and erstwhile GOP presidential hopeful) Tim Pawlenty more or less wrecked Minnesota's economy with his tightwad policies, ushering in a new shadowed age in which the once pacesetting state was transformed into a subpar economic performer.

How lovely if people could be persuaded that we've abruptly returned to the sunlit uplands of (relative) prosperity simply by putting a Democrat in the governor's chair.

Lest anyone miss this point, one public-employee union saluted the budget news as "a promising sign that Minnesota, under the leadership of Governor Mark Dayton, is recovering economically."

It is true, of course, that in the middle years of the last decade Minnesota uncharacteristically began to trail national trends on key economic indicators. Maybe that really was the fault of Pawlenty's stubborn refusal to raise state taxes or to spend more freely on education, transportation and the like.

But if so, it seems surprising that Dayton has been able to reverse the state's decline in just 11 months -- and merely by compromising with the Republican Legislature on another tough, no-tax-hike budget, a budget Dayton himself deplored.

Another possibility comes to mind in light of Thursday's report.

Maybe Minnesota fell behind the nation in the mid-2000s simply because its economy (and housing market) became a bit less bubbly and overextended than others around the country, since we now know how fragile and unreal the prosperity of that time was.

If so, it might follow that the state was better positioned to withstand the damage when the bubble burst.

Who knows? But this theory has the advantage of giving neither credit nor blame to Pawlenty, Dayton or any other strutting state politician.

The incessant effort to claim credit and assign blame for short-term economic events is among the most tiresome games in politics. Everybody plays it. We are about to plunge into a yearlong championship tournament of it.

Republicans will insist that President Obama bears exclusive responsiblility for America's economic infirmaties -- never mind the economy's critical condition when he took office -- while Democrats counter that he can't be held accountable in any detail, since if only the GOP had backed the president's miraculous policies the cure would be complete by now.

That's politics, and there are actually elements of truth to be found in both of those tall tales.

But here in Minnesota, Dayton and other Democrats can't seriously mean to argue both that the policies of George Bush, who left office three years ago, are wholly responsible for today's continuing national recession, and that the policies of Tim Pawlenty, who left office 11 months ago, have had nothing whatever to do with Minnesota's above-average recovery over the past four years.

Can they?

* * *

D.J. Tice is the Star Tribune's commentary editor.

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