The Journal Takes on Tim Pawlenty

A good start, but there’s more to be done

It’s a common complaint around here that campaign coverage focuses too much on the horse race, and not enough on the records of the candidates. But via Alex Burns and Maggie Haberman—who are doing an able job rounding up campaign news at their new Politico blogThe Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Weisman has an interesting article about Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty’s tenure as governor of Minnesota.

That record, Weisman reports, may complicate Pawlenty’s claim to be a fiscal “truth teller”:

Mr. Pawlenty balanced each two-year state budget when he was governor, and he left behind a surplus for the current fiscal year of $663 million, according to the most recent forecast by Minnesota Management and Budget, a state agency. “We balanced the budget every two years in my state, without question,” Mr. Pawlenty said at Cato, a libertarian think tank.

But now, Minnesota faces financial problems. Mr. Pawlenty’s critics there say they stem from short-term funding maneuvers that were used during his tenure to patch over shortfalls—and to put off tough decisions to align Minnesota’s tax base with its government spending.

Minnesota’s projected budget gap for fiscal 2012, expressed as a percentage of the state’s total general fund, ranks fourth-highest in the nation, behind Alabama, Nevada and California, according to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. Mr. Pawlenty’s term as governor ended in early January.

Unfortunately, the Journal story doesn’t really explore the issue in enough depth to determine how bad Minnesota’s financial condition is with respect to other states (early deficit projections can vary substantially depending on what baseline is used, and practices may differ from state to state), or what responsibility Pawlenty bears for it.

The article is also probably unfair in listing Pawlenty’s use of extra federal Medicaid money to balance the state budget as a “patch” akin to using tobacco settlement money to pay operating expenses, or deferring education payments—the very point of those stimulus funds was to use the federal government’s borrowing capacity to help states, which can’t run deficits, through an extraordinary economic collapse. But in directing attention toward the policy record of a credible candidate, the article makes a welcome contribution to the early campaign coverage. And there is evidence from other sources that one of the key question it raises—whether Pawlenty was overly optimistic about the state’s finances, allowing him to forestall unpopular choices as he was gearing up for a presidential run—is well-founded.

In June 2009, for example, the Saint Paul Legal Ledger reported that (pdf):

Pawlenty’s implication that a recovering economy might render current-day projections irrelevant flies in the face of a growing consensus that chronic revenue shortfalls are going to be with U.S. states for many years to come. A study presented last month by Donald Boyd, a senior fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, N.Y., suggests that state revenues across the country will still be lagging spending commitments by hundreds of billions of dollars through 2013 and beyond.

Sounds like there’s room for the press to do more on this story. And when it does, we could use some closer scrutiny about the choices Pawlenty did make. For example, as the center-left Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, notes, in his 2010 State of the State address Pawlenty “proposed a 20 percent cut in the state corporate tax rate with no offsetting tax increases.”

That’s an approach that’s consistent with fiscal rectitude only if you’re prepared to undertake some unusual spending cuts. And, as CBPP notes elsewhere, Pawlenty was. While state governments nationwide have had to tighten belts during the crisis, Minnesota is one of only a handful to cut tax credits for low-income households:

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty cut funding for the state Renters’ Credit by $51 million for close to 300,000 low- and moderate-income households. One-quarter of the affected households are seniors and people with severe disabilities.

Is that the model Pawlenty would follow as president? Here’s hoping for more coverage of that question soon.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx. Tags: , , , , ,