Minnesota's Pawlenty Legacy? Not So Nice

Home to both Michelle Bachmann and Al Franken, Minnesota is caught in a battle for its political soul. During his eight years in the governor's office, Tim Pawlenty was on the front lines. Now, as he runs on that record in his quest for the presidency, he's presenting himself as the Great Red Hope from a Blue State.

But Minnesotans are far from agreement about whether they're better off than they were before eight years of Governor Pawlenty. His critics and champions do agree on one thing: Tim Pawlenty is really nice.

"Governor Pawlenty epitomizes Minnesota nice," says Phil Krinkie, a former state legislator and president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota. Hy Berman, an emeritus professor of history at University of Minnesota, ticked off his complaints about the man and his policies and ended with, "unfortunately, because Tim Pawlenty is a really nice man." 

But for the governor running on his conservative record in this blue state, opinion on that nice guy's impact on the state is very mixed. He didn't raise taxes during the economic crisis, but now local school districts and municipal governments complain the tax burden [has] been passed on to them. There's a projected $5.5 billion deficit for the next fiscal year, but he left office with a slight surplus.

Overall, Minnesotans describe an administration that demonstrated the effective use of the veto to keep government small rather than one that adhered to a sweeping governing philosophy.

"The ideological commitment to reducing government, perhaps even reducing it to such a small size that it could be drowned in the bathtub, this is something new that the Pawlenty years brought into Minnesota," says Berman, the history professor who is highly critical of the deficit Pawlenty left in his wake.

But he also left something to be desired for some on the Right. Phil Krinkie called him a "caretaker governor" — not exactly a resounding endorsement from a homestate conservative.

"The governor's record wasn't one of passing austerity budgets, wasn't one of major reforms in the context of government," described Krinkie. "But you have to understand, the very partisan divide in Minnesota and elections that have come down to the narrowest of margins. That's why he was unable to put forth a vision or a proposal to run or to operate government as he might have ideologically wanted to do it."

Pawlenty's 'Defensive Legacy'

Minnesota's Pawlenty divide has been ever-present. In his election to the state's top job, he didn't win a majority in either 2002 or 2006. After serving as House Majority Leader and campaigning on “no new taxes,” Pawlenty was elected to succeed Jesse Ventura with 44 percent of the vote, eight points more than the Democratic opponent.  

Four years later, Pawlenty won a second term by the slimmest of margins — 46.7 percent to 45.7 percent — and that was after the Democratic candidate self-imploded, calling a Duluth News Tribune reporter "nothing more than a Republican whore" in the final days of the campaign.

In office, Pawlenty was never overwhelmingly popular in the state. His approval rating hung around 50 percent for most of his two terms.

"He was not profoundly unpopular, but he was never a favorite of Democrats and certainly wouldn't rank as one of the more popular governors in the history of the state," said Steve Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College.

Schier called Pawlenty's impact "basically a defensive legacy" of pushing back against Democrats in the legislature. "He was preserving the Republican agenda in basically what was a hostile environment."

After Pawlenty left office, Minnesotans elected a Democrat, but that candidate won by less than 10,000 votes. For good measure, voters elected more Republican lawmakers, and both houses of the legislature switched from Democratic to Republican control. 

"It's a little like taking the front tires on the car and putting them on the back and taking the back tires and putting them on the front," Krinkie laughed about this post-Pawlenty era. "The result has been pretty much the same. It's called gridlock in government."

Budget Battles and State Shortfalls

Governor Pawlenty began and ended his tenure during economic downturns in Minnesota. Aside from an increase in the tobacco tax in 2005 - which he called it "a health impact fee" — Pawlenty did not call for higher taxes during his eight years, and in his second term, he wielded the veto pen twice to stop tax increases passed by the Democratically-controlled legislature.

Pawlenty left office at the beginning of this year, and Minnesota now faces a $5.5 billion dollar deficit in the next budget year, or as Governor Mark Dayton put it in February, "a horrendous fiscal mess."

A March analysis by the Center for Budget Policies and Priorities found Minnesota had the seventh worst projected deficit out of 45 states facing shortfalls.

"Minnesota is a fiscal basketcase right now because our spending is 25 percent higher than our tax level," said Steve Schier, the Carleton political science professor. "These are problems that have been building for years, and one hast to say, they have been building during Tim Pawlenty's time as governor." 

Pawlenty dismisses the premise of the deficit, arguing that it's based on faulty spending projections.

"Every budget during my time as governor was balanced and the last one ends this coming summer June 30th and it will end up in the black," Pawlenty said during the first Republican primary debate in South Carolina. "If they live within their means there would be no deficit at all."

"This is not a big problem if you just refuse to raise spending, as the governor has proposed," echoed spokesman Alex Conant this week.

That's all technically true. But Minnesota also relied heavily on one-time budget cuts rather than year-to-year spending cuts. The National Conference of State Legislatures found in 2009 that Minnesota was second only to Alaska in its reliance on one-time budget patches. 

"Tim Pawlenty did not solve the long-term budget problem for the state," summed up political scientist Steve Schier.  

Tricky Math

To balance his budgets, Pawlenty did make major spending cuts, but also utilized some accounting tricks and one-time revenues to square the numbers. In 2003, Minnesota stopped including the impact of inflation in budget forecasts, which made projected deficits look smaller.

For example, in 2010, the final budget deal "saved" $1.8 billion by shifting some state payments to schools to the next budget year (a maneuver like delaying pension payments that cuts spending for one year but not the state's liability to pay it back). This forced some local districts to resort to borrowing to cover the hole in their operating budgets until the due money came in from the state.

That came up during the first Republican debate last week in South Carolina, in a moment surely in contention for the wonkiest of the night. Asked about the money his budget “borrowed” from local school districts, Pawlenty said:

"Actually the deferral of those payments to schools was something I wanted to make permanent through an executive action, and asked the legislature to make them permanent, they refused, this is a matter of public record," he said. "They chose to do it one time. In this session, it looks like they are going to make them permanent."

But the delay in some state funding for schools is not the chief complaint of the head of Minnesota's largest school district. Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Dennis Carlson has had to borrow to make up for the hole, but he said the more crippling funding challenge have been the impact of years of flat funding - when costs have increased - has not been enough.

"We simply need money to do the basics, and that money to do the basics for several years is simply inadequate." 

Governor Pawlenty is running on his education record, because he did not cut it while pushing for other reforms like pay-for-performance. He held id hold the line on education cuts, keeping state aid flat during the worst of the recession. "He made k-12 education a priority, and he didn't cut it," said Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant.

But from Carlson's vantage point, Pawlenty's legacy is not a good one in his district.

"We're not left as a better school district," he said. "We're left as a school district that's struggling to make ends meet, and struggling to preserve what we see as a very good school district and very good school system."

That could be seen as fighting words in Minnesota, a state that prides itself on its commitment to education. In fact, a study called "The Lost Decade" by the Minnesota Budget Project, resulted in a damning finding: "Minnesota is now average in its education spending compared to other states." And as Garrison Keillor reminds us, this is a state that is used to being above average.

Superintendent Dennis Carlson district is balancing its next budget with help from a leftover federal money. The year after that, things could get even uglier. The extra federal money will be gone, and $48 million is contingent on voters approving a referendum levy - which could be a tough sell in his district, which sits in Michelle Bachmann's Congressional district.

"People have this crazy environment now, where your home values are going down, your city, county and school services are diminishing, and your taxes are still going up. It's the perfect storm of the worst kind."

Inflating Property Taxes and a Collapsing Bridge

School budgets are just one way the trickle-down from Pawlenty budgets is still being felt. State funding for local governments declined throughout Tim Pawlenty’s eight years in office. The last year Tim Pawlenty was in office, county and city aid from the state was cut by 30 percent.

That led to both local spending cuts and higher tax rates. Property taxes increased 26 percent in Minnesota from 2002 to 2010, according to an analysis from Minnesota 2020, a left-leaning policy think tank.

“Tim Pawlenty went into the governor’s office and passed the responsibility, but didn’t pass the buck,” said Mayor R. T. Rybak, the mayor of Minneapolis, the state’s largest city. Active in national Democratic politics – he co-chaired Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004 and chair for Obama in 2008 – Ryback has been a vocal critic of Pawlenty’s record in Minnesota and his presidential bid.

“Everybody has to make cuts, and everybody has to make sacrifices. The problem under Governor Pawlenty is he asked everyone else to do it, when in fact he raised taxes and couldn’t balance a budget,” Ryback said this week.

Pawlenty supporters argue, though, that the state cuts should have forced local governments to get leaner and more efficient.

"I think that what you’re seen, at least in cities and counties, is an unwillingness to reform, to change," said Steve Sviggum, a former Speaker of the Minnesota House who considers Pawlenty a good friend. "All they've done is many cases is just cost-shifted on to property taxes." 

There was a moment where all that partisan animosity faded into the background. On August 1, 2007, a bridge spanning the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed during rush hour traffic, killing 13 and injuring 145. Pawlenty and Rybak worked together to rebuild the bridge — it reopened in 2008 — and Rybak said the governor was “a good partner” in that effort.  

The cause of the collapse was later identified as a combination of factors, including insufficient design and inadequate inspections.

Pawlenty pointed to the design flaws in his book, Courage to Stand, and pushed back on the idea that infrastructure spending during his administration was a contributing factor. "It was untrue and of course overlooked the reality that we were spending millions of dollars to improve the decking, railing, and lighting on the bridge when it fell,” Pawlenty wrote.

Still, infrastructure spending became a political priority in the wake of the collapse. The legislature passed a higher gas tax a year later, on the premise that the additional funds would pay for maintenance on aging roads and bridges. Pawlenty vetoed the bill, but the legislature overrode it. 

Tough Budget Talk - But with a Smile 

All these dynamics in Minnesota were on display a heated exchange in his weekly radio show late in his second term. In less than two and a half minutes, there was anger over increases in local property taxes and cuts in state spending, seething that Pawlenty's second term was a fluke, and Pawlenty's unflappable niceness as he described government growth that was out of control and needed to be slowed.

"Hi governor," Bruce from St. Paul said when he called into the governor's show. "I have a lot of respect for the governor's office, just as I would a presidential office. I think you are the cruelest man that has ever been in office, the cruelest."

"You always want to take away from the poor — always — and you always want to help the corporations. And you got in last term only because the Democrats ran a hot-headed baby against you."

"My property taxes have more than doubled under you...because you won't do things at the state level and nobody holds your feet to the fire," he continued.

"What I hear you say when you're not being this nice guy on the radio, this folksy guy that has on these famous people on the radio, and all this nice talk. But I've seen you talk at the conservative base, and I know what you're about," Bruce said, his voice quivering with anger.

"Thank you, appreciate your comments," Pawlenty responded, his voice soothing and upbeat — just shy of sing-songy. "But it is difficult to reduce government spending without impacting things like K-12 education — although we've held that harmless — local government aid, health and human service funding, because that's where most of the money is. And so state of Minnesota spending has gone up 21 percent on average from 1960, the year I was born, until I became governor. You can't sustain that, it has to be reduced."

So, while Tim Pawlenty's record of sticking to limited government and no new taxes didn't make him overwhelmingly popular in Minnesota, but he certainly got practice pushing back on adversaries.

And that's the record that political scientist Steve Schier said could apply to Washington.

"Presidents play defense a lot," Schier said, pointing to George W. Bush's second term and Obama's current back and forth with the House Republicans. "And I think you do have to say Tim Pawlenty has had considerable experience developing defensive skills as an executive." 

But as for Pawlenty's offensive skills? His ability to formulate and execute a governing vision of his own?

"That's less clear," Schier said. "Tim Pawlenty's never had an opportunity to lead on the agenda. He's never really been in a position to do that, and we don't know how effective he would be at that."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Tim Pawlenty's book as Courage to Fail