Star Tribune Editorial

As politicians with credentials more impressive than Tim Pawlenty's have recently shown, it's hard to win voters' favor by making the case that the officeholder kept things from getting worse.

Yet that, in essence, is the legacy Minnesota's 39th governor claimed for himself recently, as he reflected on eight years as state government's CEO.

Pawlenty, a Republican, boasted about the fiscal restraint he exercised on a state government that, he argued, would have grown dramatically and wastefully without him.

His governorship would be remembered, he said, as "the time that Minnesota finally came to terms with its excesses."

Pawlenty's argument is unverifiable -- which may be the beauty of it for someone who aspires to take his political act onto the national stage next year. But it's also unsatisfying.

Most Minnesotans we know measure the quality of their government by the quality of their shared lives -- the prosperity of their communities, the effectiveness of their schools, the adequacy of their infrastructure, the well-being of the vulnerable, the stewardship of the environment.

On those counts, Pawlenty deserves only middling marks. He leaves office tomorrow with Minnesota positioned similarly to where it was when he took office.

The state still has a better-than-average economy, with a higher share of its workforce employed than in many comparable states.

Yet Minnesota's unemployment rate is stalled at an uncomfortably high 7 percent.

More troubling: In a state whose productive workforce is its strongest economic asset, educational attainment levels among the young are dropping. Neither of those ills has been met with a clear, forceful counterattack from the governor's office.

Pawlenty rejected repeated DFL attempts to raise the state income tax on the state's top earners, and unilaterally cut spending with line-item vetoes and "unallotment," which he made part of the Minnesota lexicon. No major state tax was increased on his watch.

But his clamp on state government taxing and spending was not sufficient to spare his successor a $6.2 billion projected deficit in 2012-13.

What's more, the spending cuts he promulgated led directly to higher state and local fees, higher tuition at state colleges and universities, and higher local property taxes -- up 75 percent on his watch, more than double the increase that can be attributed to inflation alone.

Those changes might be deemed worth the cost had they been accompanied by new, more effective and efficient ways of delivering government services. But while Pawlenty often made compelling arguments for government reform, he delivered relatively little.

Little progress has been made in solving persistent problems Pawlenty inherited.

The K-12 academic achievement gap between white and minority students is as wide as ever, and increasingly threatens the quality of the state's future workforce. Access to quality early childhood education was denied to working-poor families by cuts in child care subsidies in 2003, and has not been restored.

The Pawlenty record has bright spots -- but some of them don't involve personal leadership on his part. A major investment in bioscience research at the University of Minnesota was authorized in 2008 with his signature, but not his push.

Similarly, he OK'd construction of Target Field, but did not engineer the creative arrangement with Hennepin County that made it possible.

Metro mass transit has improved, with Pawlenty as a participant but not a vigorous promoter. A major transportation funding bill was enacted over his veto.

He deserves praise for promoting a research partnership between the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic, one that's bound to serve Minnesota's health and economy for years to come. Much to his credit is a new state park being developed at Lake Vermilion.

Pawlenty is a gifted political communicator. He helped Minnesotans understand that "business as usual" in state government isn't up to the challenge of the leaner, more globally competitive era that has dawned.

But inside the Capitol, Pawlenty demonstrated little knack for enlisting the DFLers who controlled the Legislature in joint efforts at change.

To be sure, the responsibility for that failure is not Pawlenty's alone. But more than any of his recent predecessors, this governor seemed disinterested in forging bipartisan compromise -- going so far as to bend the unallotment statute in a manner ultimately ruled out of bounds by the state Supreme Court in order to cut negotiations short and get his way.

That aversion to compromise may serve Pawlenty well as he tests his presidential appeal to Republican primary election voters. But it leaves him with fewer lasting achievements than he might have had at home.

And it leaves Minnesota less prepared for the challenges of the next decade than it ought to be.