A reporter brought up a symmetry at Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s news conference Tuesday on the latest budget forecast: Pawlenty began as governor with a projected $4.5 billion deficit — the same level it is today. While the nation has yet to perfect a perpetual-motion machine, Minnesota seems to have found a perpetual-deficit machine in Pawlenty.
But isn’t Pawlenty just a victim of being a governor during a recession? Partly, but half of the projected deficit in the upcoming biennium is not from the declining economy but from a holdover projected deficit he refused to deal with in earlier years. He has consistently vetoed bills that would have restored revenues to bring budgets into balance into the future.
Pawlenty has taken to chiding the federal government for deficit spending, saying it should learn from governors who have to enact balanced budgets. One can only hope his phone will be busy when the feds call for advice, for Pawlenty is famous for producing budgets that allow the books to balance in the short run by creating larger deficits in the future.
His proposed budget this year would take tobacco-settlement revenues that would otherwise be collected over many years in the future, spend them now, and leave a large hole for the future. His proposal to shift some state education payments to just outside the window of this biennium would deepen the projected deficit in the subsequent biennium. His proposal to cut corporate taxes without paying for it creates a big budget hole in future years.
Last week the Legislature called his bluff and enacted a law requiring adoption this year of a balanced budget not only for the upcoming biennium but for the following biennium as well. Pawlenty signed the law Monday. Living up to it will be much harder. Pawlenty no doubt believes a “no new taxes” stamp on his passport is required for entry onto the Republican presidential nomination train. Yet eliminating a $10 billion, four-year projected deficit without new taxes and without gimmicks will require Pawlenty to lay bare the full extent to which he would reduce services.
So far this year, Minnesota has only seen the previews: 85,000 households losing their health coverage; courts faced with leaving certain crimes unprosecuted through lack of resources; and citizens faced with reduced police and library services.
Main attraction coming soon
Opening two weeks from now will be the main attraction, his new plan: the full-length, uncut, R-rated “Pawlenty Budget Horror Picture Show.”
In a speech in Washington, D.C., over the weekend, Pawlenty called for a federal balanced-budget amendment. If there had been such an amendment, of course, the federal government would not have had the main tool it used to get the country out of the Great Depression, nor the means to fight World War II, nor the means to adopt the newly enacted federal recovery act that the Federal Reserve chairman said is essential to pulling the country out of the current deep recession and that the state economist says will prevent the loss of 45,000 jobs here in Minnesota.
In leaving Minnesota with perpetual deficits, maybe Pawlenty is just getting in some practice for what he hopes will be his next gig.
Wayne Cox is executive director of Minnesota Citizens for Tax Justice.