Tom Stinson, Minnesota’s even-keeled state economist since 1987, is stepping down.
An adviser to state budget makers known for his relentlessly monotone delivery and bone-dry sense of humor, Stinson built a reputation for fairness and hard work serving under five governors for 26 years. He has been by far the longest-tenured state economist since the position was created in 1975, and a broadly interested student of what makes the Minnesota economy tick.
“This is the best job that I could have,” Stinson, 70, said. “I’m going to miss it greatly.”
He said he will now teach and write full-time at the University of Minnesota, where he is a professor of applied economics. He will be replaced as state economist by Laura Kalambokidis (pronounced Columbo-keedus), another U professor and the first woman to be named state economist.
Kalambokidis, whose research has been in public-sector economics and finance for more than 20 years, has recently focused on state and federal tax policy. She has worked with Stinson at the U for 13 years, and observed the process behind the most recent state revenue projections.
“I have been surprised and interested to see the wide range of economic questions that Tom and the staff have to address,” she said. “That variety is going to be really interesting.”
Stinson concluded over the years that Minnesota’s economy is a step ahead of most other states, and its most precious resource is its skilled, energetic workforce. He’s become a leading voice warning that the state’s greatest challenges are demographic.
“Minnesota’s economy has actually done extraordinarily well compared to the economies of other states,” Stinson said. “If you look out over the next 10, 20 years, the question is can we continue to do that.”
Around the Capitol, Stinson is best known for his twice-annual appearances to assess the state’s economic health, emerging after days refining revenue projections in seclusion with his staff.
The economic and budget forecasts determine how much state leaders have to spend, and whether to expect a shortfall. Stinson’s assessments upended budget fights at the Capitol, yet his deadpan delivery sometimes left lawmakers wondering whether his outlook was upbeat or gloomy. Longtime legislators said Stinson earned enormous respect from leaders in both parties.
“I have viewed Dr. Stinson as the most irreplaceable person in state government,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul. “Everybody has total confidence in him. I have been fearful of the day he finally says, ‘I quit.’ ”
Though Stinson downplays it, the job sometimes caused tension with his bosses. When Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty was eyeing a presidential bid on the promise of less government spending, Stinson openly praised the federal stimulus that helped nurse Minnesota’s budget through a rough patch.
DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich, the first governor Stinson worked for, would always call him in October, well before the forecast was ready, to put in a plug for sunnier projections, saying he was more optimistic than Stinson.
“I didn’t have a clue what the forecast was going to be,” Stinson said. “I didn’t know how optimistic I was. He didn’t know how optimistic I was.”
His long-term forecast for Minnesota depends on the state’s ability to develop a new generation of skilled labor to replace the well-educated but aging workers on whom the state’s diverse economy has been built.
Falling high school graduation rates illustrate his concern. About 92 percent of the workforce today has a high school diploma. But high school graduation rates are now about 77 percent. Black and Latino graduation rates hovering around 50 percent are particularly troubling.
“We’re diluting the quality of the workforce just on that simple measure,” he said. “That’s going to be the challenge.”
Stinson partnered with former state demographer Tom Gillaspy to draw attention to these shifts, and the two popularized the statistic that 70 percent of the jobs of the future in Minnesota will require some postsecondary education.
“The focus here is always on the short term,” Gillaspy said Monday at the Capitol. “But it’s important to have the long-run voices out there, and that’s something Tom was able to do.”
Gillaspy praised Stinson’s humility and sense of humor, recounting a story from the spring of 2009, when Stinson was giving a grim revenue projection to a room full of reporters firing tense questions. Someone asked Stinson if he and the governor ever talk about the budget over coffee. Stinson didn’t miss a beat.
“I don’t drink coffee,” he said.
Stinson’s name has prompted confusion for far-flung fans of the Replacements, the Minneapolis-based band whose bassist was named Tommy Stinson. For years Stinson, the economist, and his wife received phone calls in the middle of the night, often from the West Coast. One call in particular sticks out in Stinson’s mind.
“This guy had been overindulging in recreational chemicals, and it was 3 or 3:30 in the morning, and I told him only an idiot from California would be calling someone in Minneapolis at 3:30 in the morning,” Stinson said. “He hung up and he called back, and ‘Tommy, Tommy, Tommy, calm down,’ so on like that. So I carefully explained that I wasn’t who he thought I was.”
Stinson, a native of Puyallup, Wash., moved to Minnesota to get his Ph.D. at the U and was hired as an economist in a Twin Cities office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since 1987, he has ostensibly split his time between the U and Minnesota Management & Budget, though his work on state revenues and budgets has been the more taxing of the two half-time jobs.
“They said it was a half-time job,” he said of the state economist position. “What they didn’t tell me was it was half of 24 hours, 7 days a week.”