Conventional wisdom suggests that political ambition is a bad thing. Conventional wisdom — at least when it comes to Gov. Tim Pawlenty — has been wrong.
According to his critics, Pawlenty’s most recent attempts to control runaway spending in the state were fueled primarily by presidential considerations. To which the average Minnesota taxpayer might gratefully reply: “So what?”
Besides, Pawlenty’s insistence on budget restraint was more likely the result of simple frustration.
Although census data continue to show Minnesota staying true to its high tax tradition, Democrats in the Legislature have pushed billion-dollar tax increases for three years running.
In 2008, they overrode a Pawlenty veto of a $6.6 billion, 10-year sales, gas and license-fee tax for transportation. In 2009, they demanded another billion-dollar tax hike as part of any budget solution.
It included a fourth-tier income tax of 9 percent, giving Minnesota, as Pawlenty pointed out, the rare distinction of having two of the 10-highest income tax brackets in the nation.
(Look out, New York and California: We’re coming after you next.)
It was then that the governor decided on unilaterally cutting $2.7 billion from state spending, only to see the state Supreme Court overrule his “unallotment” in a controversial 4-3 decision.
Far from hurting Pawlenty, however, the showdown focused public attention on his budget-cutting bona fides. The result was a 2010 budget deal largely of Pawlenty’s making — though once again, Democrats pitched a billion-dollar income tax hike.
Fact is, conservatives would be hard-pressed to argue with their outgoing governor’s fiscal record.
Over Pawlenty’s tenure, general-fund increases have averaged just under 2 percent annually. Indeed, Pawlenty appears to be the first governor in state history to actually reduce general-fund spending from one biennium to the next.
And for all the talk of Pawlenty’s alleged stinginess resulting in a property tax shift from rich to poor, the truth is that households in the top 10 percent of incomes still pay more than 27 percent of property taxes collected.
Detractors appear to be living under the illusion of a so-called Minnesota Miracle — the false notion that raising state taxes results in lower property tax levies.
Since the early 1970s, roughly the opposite has been true — the more that local government aid has been handed out, the more local governments have spent.
And just why should taxpayers all over the state subsidize local budgets, anyway?
Pawlenty certainly hasn’t always governed from the right. His gratuitous attacks on tobacco and drug companies — including statewide smoking bans, “health impact fees” and a government-sponsored drug importation program (that subsequently flopped) — still don’t sit well with principled conservatives.
He has also capitulated on stadium and mass-transit subsidies. The latter is especially egregious given the Northstar commuter-rail line’s ridership numbers, which are coming in a whopping 20 percent less than forecast for the first year of operation.
As a result, extending the line to St. Cloud is off and fare increases are on hold, meaning larger taxpayer subsidies are on the way.
Once an opponent of mass-transit schemes, Pawlenty did an about-face when pressured by the New Urbanist elite.
Indeed, his penchant for going “green,” as in his enthusiastic support for renewable-energy standards legislation along with a draconian greenhouse-gas bill, may be his biggest political obstacle going forward.
He can ill-afford to be seen cozying up to a movement that long ago divorced itself from any political reality except to defeat his fellow Republicans.
Pawlenty would do better touting a successful road-building record. The metro beltway has been widened; the Interstate 35E/694 exchange and the Wakota Bridge project have been completed, and, of course, the Crosstown maze has finally been finished.
When all is said and done, the governor has a compelling story to tell. He’s had to work with a hostile Democratic majority in both statehouses and in what heretofore at least was considered a solidly blue state.
It’s hard to imagine any of his predecessors — including Republicans such as Al Quie or Arne Carlson — mustering the political courage to sustain a series of gubernatorial vetoes in the last legislative session to rein in the spenders.
Pawlenty’s liberal critics like to note that the next budget biennium still faces a deficit of $6.2 billion, but as usual that’s due to an explosion of spending scheduled for fiscal years 2012-13.
According to the state’s Management and Budget office, the general fund will skyrocket to $38.6 in the next two years from less than $31 billion during the current cycle under Pawlenty.
His resolve has been the difference between Minnesota and a California-style budget debacle.
We may soon miss it.
Published in the Star Tribune, December 18, 2010