Pawlenty’s favorite statistic: exaggerated and misleading

Pawlenty Watch

Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s favorite statistic is technically accurate but exaggerated and so out-of-context as to be misleading.

As Pawlenty has taken his political ambitions national, he has developed a shorthand summary of his record in holding down government spending in Minnesota. It goes like this:

From 1960 to 2002, under 10 previous Minnesota governors of three different parties including his own, general fund spending in Minnesota had grown by an average of 21 percent per biennium. Under Pawlenty, state general fund spending has grown by just 2 percent a year.

Pawlenty gives a version of the 21-to-2 boast on many occasions. It has been adopted by his admirers, as in this version from the Wall Street Journal, which called it Pawlenty’s “single favorite statistic” and opines that the number gives Pawlenty “a stark narrative of fiscal restraint” that will be well-received by Republicans searching for a 2012 presidential nominee.

Here’s a workup by Pawlenty’s budget department of the numbers to back up the claim.

PoliGraph, the new joint political fact-checking project of MPR and the Humphrey Institute, turned its microscope on a version of the statistic, as Pawlenty stated it in a recent “Mid-Day” interview with Gary Eichten.  PoliGraph deemed the numbers to be “accurate.”

It’s hard to know how tough to be in the fact-checking game, but — based partly on the misleading way Pawlenty generally cites the number, but moreso on the way it is taken out of context — I would call that a too-generous review.

Here are some of the problems with Pawlenty’s claim:

Why compare a one-year Pawlenty average to a two-year average for his predecessors?
Pawlenty routinely compares his average spending growth for one-year to a biennium figure for his 10 predecessors. Here’s the way he put it on MPR:

“From 1960 until 2002, the average two-year spending increase for the state in the general fund was 21 percent. We brought that down during my time to about 2 percent a year.”

I’ve heard him cite the statistic several times, and I never picked up on this until PoliGraph did. They said it “inflated” the extent to which his spending growth rate was less than his predecessors.

Yeah, by 100 percent.

This can’t be an accident. It’s an exaggeration and misleading. I asked Pawlenty’s able spokester Brian McClung why does it. He replied:

“Whether you look at it as 21.1% per biennium prior to Governor Pawlenty’s time in office and 3.9% per biennium during his time in office or 10.55% annually prior and 1.95% annually during, the point remains the same — for more than 40 years Minnesota state government was growing at a rate that rapidly outpaced the growth in the private sector or in people’s paychecks.  Governor Pawlenty brought some much needed fiscal discipline to the budget after decades of runaway spending.”

Well that’s true, so far as it goes. But if you compare apples to apples even on so basic a measure as how many years of spending, Pawlenty’s favorite 21-2 ratio is suddenly 21-4. That’s still still a big gap, as McClung noted. But the issue here is one of straightforwardness. Pawlenty and his friends, for starters, need to drop the 21-2.

Inflation, population growth
During periods of high inflation, government dollars buy less in services.  As a state’s population grows, just to maintain the same level of services per capita will cost more. I’m no economist, nor do I play one on TV, but I  trust these are non-controversial assertions.

In comparing the Pawlenty fiscal record with those of his predecessors, it would be reasonable to take these into account. During the eight-year Pawlenty era, Minnesota probably spent more, and I suspect much more,  on National Guardsmen and benefits for National Guard veterans than the United States spent in its eight-year war for independence from George III — in unadjusted dollars. But this is not a fair reflection of Pawlenty’s fiscal management of those functions.

The entire Pawlenty era has been a period of relatively low inflation, especially compared with those of his 10 predecessors, which would include two big inflation spikes, during the Ford and Carter presidencies when inflation topped 10 percent

We won’t know for sure until the 2010 Census numbers are released, but I believe Minnesota’s population growth rate was also significantly higher in the 1960-2000 than it has been in the 20-aughts. If the Pawlenty comparison table had relied on inflation and population adjusted figures, I suspect he would still look good (on the “fiscal restraint” scale), but not nearly as good as he looked by deciding not to adjust. I asked McClung why the guv didn’t adjust. He replied:

“The straightforward look at general fund spending since 1960 is what was prepared by MMB [Minnesota Management and Budget].  You are certainly welcome to do your own analysis adjusting for inflation or other factors if you wish.”

I don’t feel competent to perform the adjustments, although I suspect MMB could do it in about five minutes. I do question which way of expressing the numbers is more straightforward.  There’s a common term for statistics that measure growth in inflation-adjusted dollars. It’s called “real growth.” If you ignore inflation, your numbers are less real, less honest. I can’t see into anyone’s motives with confidence, but the problem with failing to make such basic adjustments —  when making them would reduce the spending restraint gap between Pawlenty and his predecessors — is that it looks like you did it on purpose.

What government does
This section isn’t really about the accuracy nor even the deeper honesty of Pawlenty’s claim.

From 1960 through 2002, Minnesota government didn’t just spend more, it also did more. My esteemed former Strib colleague Dane Smith compiled a good list of some of the things that the state does that it didn’t used to do.

On a philosophical or ideological basis, a claim like Pawlenty’s assumes less government is better because it equates to lower taxes, but seldom talks honestly about the real tradeoffs, which includes less service.

One of the state spending functions that Pawlenty claims to hold sacred is K-12 education funding. During the 40 years that Pawlenty’s favorite statistic implicitly trashes, the state also got much more involved in education, which used to rely more on local property taxes. Using the state power to redistribute wealth from rich taxpayers to poor school districts was a big part of what was called the Minnesota Miracle.

p.s. Pawlenty’s calculations for the current biennium also don’t count as spending the almost $2 billion that he and the Legislature agreed to “shift” into the next biennium. The money is being spent in fiscal 2011, and the state is theoretically good for it (although I personally don’t see how they will pay it back any time soon), but it isn’t being counted as 2011 spending. The use of such accounting tricks is also a blot on Pawlenty’s self-scorecard for recent spending.

But here’s the big problem
But here’s the biggest problem with Pawlenty’s self-serving 50-year lookback. The Pawlenty Era contains within it the worst economic crash since the Great Depression of the ’30s. I’ll assume, without bothering McClung for a comment on it, that Pawlenty isn’t interested in taking any credit for the collapse of the housing and financial markets (although one could certainly argue that the larger Republican argument about getting government out of the way and letting the free market be free had something to do with it).

Still, the economic meltdown is the single biggest unspoken factor in Pawlenty’s favorite statistic.

Using the numbers from Pawlenty’s own chart, state spending dropped just between fiscal years 2008 and 2009 by more than 12 percent.  The negative growth of the last three years is the real reason for Pawlenty’s “average” annual spending growth rate of 1.9 percent.

To a significant degree, state spending shrank because state revenue shrank because the whole U.S. economy shrank.

According to a just released annual study by the non-partisan National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO, it’s an arm of the National Governors’ Association), states experienced an overall 11.8 decline in combined sales, personal income and corporate income-tax collections between 2008 and 2010. Those taxes make up approximately 80 percent of general fund revenue for all states combined.

Two years of negative growth is unprecedented in the 40 years NASBO has been tracking, according to Brian Sigritz, director of NASBO’s State Fiscal Studies.

I did offer McClung a chance to comment on the notion that Pawlenty’s favorite fact seems to attribute the drop in recent state spending a bit too much to his policies as opposed to national economic conditions and taking a great deal of “credit” that belongs to the recession. On behalf of the governor, McClung replied:

“While many states are cutting their budgets as they deal with decreased revenue, the previous tradition in Minnesota had been to increase taxes and increase government spending, even during economic downturns.  It is notable that the 9.3 percent cut in general fund spending is the first time spending has gone down in the history of the state from one biennium to the next.  Of course, this is certainly not the first time the state has been through an economic downturn.  But past governors chose to raise taxes and keep spending on an unsustainable path. For example, Governor Arne Carlson faced a $2 billion deficit in the early 1990s, but he raised the sales tax and kept the budget growing, rather than cutting spending.”

I suppose this gets to the essence of the issue. I don’t doubt that state spending would be higher this biennium if a DFLer had been governor. The DFL-controlled majority did try to raise taxes so it wouldn’t have to cut as much spending. Pawlenty vetoed those bills.

There’s really no basis for assuming, as McClung seems to, that if they had their way, DFLers would have raised taxes so much that no spending cuts would have been needed. According to NASBO’s Sigritz, 37 states, including many with Democratic governors, reduced overall spending during the recession.

If you think about it, this gets to the problem with the basic methodology that produces the Pawlenty factoid. I suspect that every governor who’s been in office since 2006 — by making the the same decision Pawlenty made to ignore the recessionary context of the past few years — could also demonstrate that he or she is the most fiscally conservative governor of the past 50 years.

But we were talking about the question of whether, without Pawlenty there to stop them, the Minnesota legislators would have just kept raising taxes and refused to make any spending cuts.

At the end of the 2009 session, having already agreed to significant spending cuts and faced with a $2.7 billion gap, the Minnesota Legislature passed  a $900 million income-tax hike on the highest-income Minnesotans.

So we have what I’ll assume to be an honest ideological difference about whether, in those circumstances, it’s better to address a deficit with all cuts or with a combination of cuts and new taxes, but not a proposal to balance entirely with higher taxes except in the minds of conservatives when they try to channel their inner liberals.

I think I may be almost finished
I’ve done some fact-checking/truth squadding in my former life at the Strib. It’s a valuable service, but it can be hard, as in the instant case, to figure out what level of truthfulness passes the test. PoliGraph found that Pawlenty’s numbers on 50 years of annual and biennial spending patterns appear to be in order.

But we also know how easy it is to shade and mislead, even using accurate numbers. Pawlenty’s basic point — that his track record shows that he believes in holding the line against new spending ideas and new taxes — is basically correct. But the numbers he used to show that he is more than 10 times less spending than his combined predecessors reminds me of that excellent quote from journalist Gregg Easterbrook that if you torture numbers long enough, they’ll confess to anything.

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Comments (30)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/04/2010 - 09:07 am.

    While Eric writhes in the salt of the Governor’s outrageous mendacity, I’d like to point out that an increase of 2%, or 4% is still an increase. 8 year over year budget increases; despite the leftists’ fuming over the bloodletting budget “cuts” they claim to have suffered.

    When, one wonders, will the scary smart, reality based community clamber for a bit of honest, straight talk their own leaders and sources of information?

  2. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 06/04/2010 - 09:17 am.

    And the consequences are:

    From Mn20/20 Fellow, John Van Hecke

    Since 2002, Minnesota has reduced investment in our children’s education by 14%. In the last several years, to balance Minnesota’s budget, elected state officials have delayed state payments to school districts, effectively creating greater education spending reductions and forcing additional financial hardships on Minnesota schools.

    What is cast as a difficult state public policy decision by Governor Pawlenty and State Senate and House leaders becomes another series of small humiliations, spread across Minnesota’s educational landscape.

    Toward the end of every week, I receive the Walnut Grove-Westbrook Sentinel-Tribune, my hometown weekly newspaper. The May 26, 2010 edition’s front page notes a small cities housing grant program’s availability, an ash tree fungus problem, Memorial Day observation schedules and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum’s spring open house. Buried almost in the back are the official school board minutes.

    They are a lesson in small humiliations.

    On April 19, the seven member WWG school board approved $140,400 in spending reductions for the school year. First, the board raised student activities fees by $1,500. Current enrollment is 491. Assuming about 291 are 7th-12th grade students, that’s about $5 per kid, except not every child participates in an activity. Even an extra $50 won’t remotely cover an activity’s real cost but it does represent a terrific small humiliation in an area with a median household income of $32,000.

    The school is lowering the thermostat to 65 degrees from 68, expecting to save $5,000. A morning school bus route will be eliminated, saving another $5,000. That route’s students will be absorbed into existing routes, creating a longer bus ride for every student.

    The high school’s building equipment and supply budget is being cut $15,000. I expect luxury items such as mops, buckets, chalk, dryboard markers, test tubes, replacement screws, vacuum cleaner bags, fluorescent light tubes, the stuff that really rankles conservative public policymakers, won’t be missed much. The elementary school building in Walnut Grove will bear a $20,500 cut, but that number also includes the elementary library, a traditionally easy budget cutting target.

    State Capitol grandstanding, given a little time and 160 miles, translates into a regular series of small humiliations. I may be studying the Westbrook Walnut Grove school board minutes but subscribers of every Minnesota weekly, daily and major metro will soon read their own versions of this humiliating story. It’s not a recipe for success.

    We see, all too clearly, the consequences of disinvestment. Minnesota must choose between prosperity and decline. Our future is rooted in strong school funding. Unless we return to that standard, the next budget cycle’s small humiliations will grow larger and Minnesota’s school children will enter the workforce less prepared than the generation preceding them. That should be the ultimate humiliation.


    Time to step up to the plate, folks? No new taxes is obviously not the answer here. When is enough going to be enough?

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/04/2010 - 09:54 am.

    There is a lot that can be said about the governor’s favorite statistic. What I say is that it’s significance is based on the assumption that the issues and the way the legislature resolved them in 1960, are relevant to what we to do today. The 2010 legislature just doesn’t have the capability of legislating in 1960, a half a century ago. The governor seems to want the legislature to address a set of problems other than those with which they are confronted.

    Hot tub time machines exist only in movies.

  4. Submitted by John E Iacono on 06/04/2010 - 10:09 am.

    Yet another lesson in “how to lie with statistics.”

    Interesting to see how it smarts when this fully disclosed, factual presentation of statistics in a way that states a true underlying fact in a manner more advantageous to the presenter comes from the opposition.

    What I see in the above post is:

    “Yeah, it’s true both in the underlying reality and, as presented, in its technical claims — but if I were doing it I would present it in a way that makes my side look better. I’d even try to ignore the fact that EVERY dem legislature has pressed — again and again — for more and more taxes and less and less cutting and more and more “investments” (code for spending) no matter the burdens on the public, and most likely would have gone much further in added taxation were it not for dread of the governor’s veto.”

    Each side gets to “lie with statistics” to its own advantage, however, and no amount of justifying or papering over the underlying realities will get the dems out of this self-inflicted negative perception that they are “big spenders” in need of firmly imposed discipline.

    “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time” still holds true.

  5. Submitted by John E Iacono on 06/04/2010 - 10:16 am.

    >Bill Gleason

    Bill, if these “investments” and “humiliations” were as anathema to the citizens of those school districts as they apparently are you you, one would think they would support a referendum (if needed) to make up the difference.

    Could it be that they, as a group, might not agree with you?

    And where is it written that any cut decided upon by educators — not cost accountants, or even financially wise persons — is done wisely?

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/04/2010 - 10:26 am.

    There’s a couple more points I think I need to be made explicit. First, regardless of Pawlenty’s accuracy with his big statistic, one has to remember that he’s never actually produced a balanced budget in real terms. Revenue has never actually matched or exceeded state spending during the Pawlenty era. Pawlenty’s claim is only impressive if you assume keeping growth down is more important than maintaining services and paying for government. Had Pawlenty maintained services while holding growth down even I would have been impressed.

    The thing that really distinguishes Pawlenty from his predecessors is that when faced with deficits, he refused to solve the problem. He just kicked the can down the road for 8 years.

    The other thing one has to remember is that the Republicans never actually made a case that the growth they were complaining about was unsustainable. McClung simply declares the previous growth to be unsustainable but the fact is that MN experienced more prosperity and growth during those “growth” years than is has during the low growth Pawlenty era. Republican never really did produce any actual data to support their declarations that our taxes or spending growth were hurting the state. They took it as a matter of faith that tax cuts would spur growth. Both on the national and state levels this has now been revealed as a magic plan, cut taxes and wait for the magic to happen.

    Even if you grant Pawlenty his statistic, you’re still left with the fact that he’s the only governor in the history of MN that made no legitimate effort- ever- to resolve budget deficits. His big accomplishment is to have created a chronic budget crises.

  7. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/04/2010 - 10:36 am.

    “And where is it written that any cut decided upon by educators — not cost accountants, or even financially wise persons — is done wisely?”

    Actually, if you want to use an academic results based unit of measurement (after all, that’s what schools are for, right?), grad rates, BST, MCT, ACT scores haven’t budged upwards over any two year period in the past 20 years.

    The only consistent movement in the positive direction has been the compensation packages of union teachers and support staff.

    Lean times or bales of cash years, the outcomes of MN public schools weather ’em all.

  8. Submitted by Lance Olson on 06/04/2010 - 11:12 am.

    Eric and the Moderators:

    Eric, you would win much wider respect as a journalist and analyst if you sported a modicum of independence. You could throw all these numbers at any candidate. This crap is right out of DFL caucus research. Spread it around a little.

    Your great intellect I greatly respect but your categorical bias against Republicans absolutely sours your stuff to the vast majority of other readers, if you already haven’t toggled their permanent off switch.

    Be fair. Point the nuclear microscope at other subjects. Pursue great, fair, well-written beauty in your prose. Just a hint of promise and optimism.

    You live in far too dark a world, Eric. Give me some light! Review a frat boy movie but only if you walk into the theater in a happy mood, pretty tipsy and after a really good mushroom burger.


  9. Submitted by Steve Woodbury on 06/04/2010 - 11:39 am.

    I can only imagine how extremely complex it is to manage a State government. I admit that I have no experience to draw from. The fact is that elected public officals in high governmental positions have a great deal of power to affect people’s lives. Everone knows that government has a moral obligation to care for the less fortunate. We know that we cannot, for example, mortgage our future by not fully supporting our educational system. We know we need roads, we need to be stewards of our environment, etc. etc etc. However, basing one’s political position on the ability to “cut budgets” or “veto spending” is too simplistic. It makes good rhetoric for the masses, but frankly offends the have-nots. Taxes are a fact of life in a free society. We have to pay for what we need. The trick is not to over-pay, or worse yet, pay for what we don’t need. That is the reality and the on-going challenge of State government.

  10. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 06/04/2010 - 11:57 am.

    Thanks for your comments, John.

    It was not an accident that the author cited in my earlier comments mentioned that the median household income in the district was $32K.

    I think you know the rest of the argument, but I doubt that anything I could say would change your mind, so I won’t pursue this.


    Your first post implied that the “cuts” the leftists complained about were non-existent since the budget has gone up. I cited this one small example to illustrate that this is not the case.



  11. Submitted by Steve Rose on 06/04/2010 - 12:00 pm.


    You engaged in the same type of statistical abuse of which you accuse the Ggovernor, when you wrote, “The entire Pawlenty era has been a period of relatively low inflation, especially compared with those of his 10 predecessors, which would include two big inflation spikes, during the Ford and Carter presidencies when inflation topped 10 percent”.

    The facts: Ford took office in August of 1974; the annual inflation rate for 1974 was 11.0%. The annual inflation rate was never again about 10% during Ford’s presidency. Carter was elected in 1976; the annual inflation rate for 1976 was 6.5%. The last year of the Carter presidency (1980), the annual inflation rate was 13.5%

    You thought we wouldn’t notice?

  12. Submitted by John E Iacono on 06/04/2010 - 12:50 pm.

    Sorry, Bill…

    Median income does not do it for me, unless you mean to suggest that lower median income means “I don’t care about my kids’ education,” which I doubt.

    More relevant to me would be the mean value of the taxable properties in the district, and the average per household impact of restoring the cuts.

    I note you do not address my question about the wisdom of those making them.

  13. Submitted by Fritz Dahmus on 06/04/2010 - 12:52 pm.

    So, Eric….the two major points of the article are:

    1). A politician has over-stated his value.
    2). A Republican politician, generally speaking, likes tax cuts and low government spending!

    Having said that….thanks for the fact checking…even though this article needs some fact-checking.

  14. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 06/04/2010 - 01:41 pm.

    Steve in #11,

    I’m no economic expert, but the following link seems to indicate 11% inflation for 1974, 9.2% for 1975, 11% for 1979, and 13.5% for 1980 (plus 10.3% for 1981, whose budget was set in the 1980 Carter adminstration):

    It looks like Eric is saying that inflation topped 10% for significant portions of time within the Ford and Carter administrations, which is clearly true even from your own numbers. (Note that Eric did not use the word “average” which would have implied the more sustained level of inflation that you seem to assume was his intent.) You would be correct to say that Ford probably doesn’t deserve the brunt of the blame for it, as much as any president could be held accountable for such a thing, as he only served a little over 2 years. But it doesn’t look like Eric is saying that at all either — it was simply a time reference to the mid-to-late 1970s.

    Furthermore, even in the below 10% years, inflation was still around 6-7 percent during that time, which is significantly higher than the 2-3 percent figures of the last decade. We are certainly on the longest sustained run of low inflation since the early 1960s (which would make a very problematic comparison using Pawlenty’s spending from 2003-2011 and predecessor spending 1960-2002 without adjustments).

  15. Submitted by Steve Rose on 06/04/2010 - 02:29 pm.


    I agree, and what I wrote agrees, with your numbers.

    Eric stated, “two big inflation spikes, during the Ford and Carter presidencies when inflation topped 10 percent”. The only year of the Ford presidency when the annual inflation topped 10% was the first year, in which he served less than five months.

    Inflation ran up to 13.6% by the close of the Carter administration.

    It is statistically dishonest to combine those presidencies, with respect to inflation. At the end of the Carter years, inflation was more than double the rate it was when Ford left office.

    I think this is a case of employing statistical dishonesty to build a case that someone else is being statistically dishonest.

  16. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 06/04/2010 - 02:44 pm.


    It is somewhat easier for the locals to make up for cuts – in places like Edina.

    No, I did not address the question of wisdom. I don’t think these folks had any choice but to make the cuts.



  17. Submitted by Ross Williams on 06/04/2010 - 02:55 pm.

    Lets not mistake factually accurate for truthful, they are really entirely different things.

  18. Submitted by Rich Crose on 06/04/2010 - 03:02 pm.

    The top marginal income tax rate at the beginning of the quoted period was 91%. The government took 91 cents of every dollar you made over $400,000. Today it is 35%. (

    You would assume that the middle class is paying a greater share of their income in taxes now than in 1960, but in reality, they are paying less. And the poor aren’t paying taxes at all. That means the wealthy have so much more wealth now that 35% of their income is the same amount as 91% 50 years ago.

    In 50 years when President Pawlenty looks back, this class disparity will have grown and grown. The middle class won’t be paying taxes at all. The top marginal rate will be 10% and the chant “No more taxes!” will be replaced by “Eat the rich!”

  19. Submitted by Joel Jensen on 06/04/2010 - 08:11 pm.

    It’s interesting to note that the highest increases in state general fund spending occurred under Republican Governor Harold LeVander (an average increase for each biennium of 46.2%.)

    I’m guessing they refer to him in today’s GOP as “Benedict Harry”.

    But blaming LeVander is like crediting Pawlenty. It’s not really fair to do either unless the numbers are placed in their proper context.

    Governor Pawlenty, in choosing to measure our State and his administration by the narrow and selectively calculated criteria of not total state and local spending or even total state spending, but only state general fund spending illustrates the Governor’s problem with truthiness. If you want to be known as a straight-shooter, you have to shoot straight.

    The Minnesota Milestones project was begun back in 1991 by Governor Carlson (now referred to by the scary stupid fantasy-based-society of the GOP as “Benedict Arne” for his apostacy in favoring balanced budgets over tax protests).

    The purpose of the Minnesota Milestones project was to engage the Minnesota public in the setting of goals for Minnesota’s future. Amazingly, reducing taxes and shrinking government were not enshrined as the First, Last and Only Commandments in this public process.

    Instead, the process resulted in a “vision for the future, 19 major goals, and indicators of progress toward those goals.”

    Progress was measured periodically until 2002 (when the project went into ‘hiatus’). In 2009, the legislature directed that the project and it’s measurement of progress for our State should be resumed.

    In addition to checking Governor Pawlenty on his math*, maybe we should also check on whether he is really pursuing or achieving the goals of Minnesota’s future that were produced by this process. I’ve heard he’s a great believer in performance-based measurements of other people’s work. How about his own?

    And to the extent Governor Pawlenty is not adjusting his own performance stats to account for differences in inflation, population growth, or the occurrence of the Great Recession, it would not be expected that he would not resort to those excuses when addressing the negative trends revealed by the 2010 updated of Minnesota Milestones found here:

    Child Poverty
    Low Birth Rate
    Reading Test Scores
    Food Shelf Use
    Growth in Gross State Product
    Employment of Working Age Population
    Employment to Population Ratio
    Job Growth
    Unemployment Rate
    Poverty Rate

    In deciding where we should be headed, Minnesotan’s have taken a pretty balanced approach that serves the goals relating to people, community/democracy, economy and environment.

    In comparing growth in spending, we must also consider what we would have done (or will in the future do) without in basic services added since 1960 including special education, Medicaid payment for senior care in nursing homes and for basic health care for the poor and disabled, environmental and consumer protection, women’s sports programs, equal pay for equal work, etc., etc. etc.

    This equation has two sides and Pawlenty seems intent on only looking at one.

    Trends in Minnesota Government Spending
    A Ten-Year Analysis

    Minnesota’s Government Growth in Context

  20. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/05/2010 - 10:13 am.

    Thanks Joel for those informative links. The information just highlights the problem alluded to earlier.

    The fact is Republicans never made the case that our tax rates or government growth were a problem much less a crises.

    One of the reasons I call the period from the late 1970s to the present “The Great Stupid” is Americans allowed themselves to be convinced by a series of arguments that were completely devoid of any factual basis. From fluoridation to flag burning the Republican agenda has been characterized the elevation of non-issues to the status of crises. Republicans simply declared that taxes were too high and government was too big, and this was a crises. One cannot blame the Republicans alone because many Democrats ended up adopting the same theme’s in failed attempts to compete with Republicans politically. By the middle of the 90s “Small Government” was everyone’s agenda.

    The problem was no one ever bothered to ask where all this was going, and what problem exactly it was we were solving. At a time when MN was outperforming the nation no one seemed to be interested in asking what “crises” we were supposed to be confronting here. Like fluoridation and school prayer it was a crises that existed only in the minds of crises driven politicians looking for wedge issues. But they won elections with it. No one, not even the Democrats bothered to ask: “how inefficient is the government really”? “What do you really mean by ‘small government’, how big should the government be”? “What do you have in mind, a certain number of government workers, a limit to the amount of space the government occupies, some ideal percentage of government dollars in the economy”? We launched into one of the biggest government deconstruction and defunding projects in American history without a whiff of critical examination, it was pure faith. The hysteria continues to this day, claims that all the wealthy will move out of the state, business will collapse, and everyone will give up working and go on the dole remain the primary arguments against raising taxes. So in our effort to solve a non-existent spending crises we created a real recession and budget crises.

    And to make matters worse in the process of abandoning reason we forgot how to make and implement public policy. An entire generation decided that we didn’t public policy because we’d change the world with out personal choices. The economy was irrelevant because our kids would have great resumes and we were optimistic. Pffff.

  21. Submitted by John E Iacono on 06/05/2010 - 12:49 pm.

    Some very interesting points made of late here.

    Unfortunately, many of them seem to ASSUME that an ever increasing social role for state government, running parallel to a similar growth for the federal government, equates to a better and more desirable overall environment, making Minnesota a more desirable place to live.

    A majority of Minnesotans, however (if Pawlenty’s continuing popularity after eight years in office during which dem criticism has been constant, vocal, and harsh) seem not to agree with this position.

    Government waste at all levels, punitive cuts that appear to be made to “make ’em wish they had given us more money”, public employees abusing credit cards, taking long lunches “on the clock”, blind refusal to discontinue “business as usual”, refusal to significantly cut bloated administrative staffs in both schools and government agencies, being treated shabbily by government employees who treat citizens as subjects rather than customers, intrusive laws and regulations which seem to care little for the paperwork and burdens placed upon them — all these may have something to do with that.

    Seeing instances of persons “scamming” the various systems put in place does not help, and seeing bureaucrats constantly excusing their failure to do the jobs they are hired to do by pleading “lack of staff” — as though that would cut it in the real world — probably contribute to the perception that government is wasteful and ineffective.

    Sadly, these negative facts and perceptions overlook the beneficial contributions of many of our public servants and programs, as the media focuses on the failings and not the successes of our government agencies. They are there, but the rotten apples spoil the barrel.

    As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between: not all government is wasteful, inefficient, intrusive, and hostile. But enough of it is to provide fertile soil for those who promise to hold it down, clean it up, and work from a base different from the current “I got my rights” and “What can my country do for ME” prevailing attitudes that so offend those who work hard to provide all those goodies.

    I am FOR those few well administered programs that speak to real needs of the young and less fortunate in our community.

    At the same time, I — along with many fellow citizens — am disgusted with the overall wasteful and unnecessarily intrusive condition of our state, county, local and school structures.

    So I am also FOR any politician who will promise to take a new look and trim our government rather than just tax us more for more of the shameful same. I believe this fall’s elections will show I am not alone.

  22. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 06/05/2010 - 04:53 pm.

    Steve in #15:

    Again, I think he was using Ford/Carter as a reference of time — in which case he is 100% correct — more than blame, which seems to be what you are objecting to (which is strange, given that the piece does not discuss either of those presidents further, or even the problems of inflation in general). Your complaint seems to be more of the hyper-sensitive, out-of-context variety than any reasonable fact-check (which is indeed a problem with political discourse).

    That said, I think Eric would have done much better to get an economist to run the inflation numbers against Pawlenty’s numbers and published that as a follow-up to the MPR report. As it stands, he basically just echoed that earlier report, only in a longer, less focused, and opinion-based format.

  23. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/06/2010 - 09:08 pm.

    //… many of them seem to ASSUME that an ever increasing social role for state government, running parallel to a similar growth for the federal government, equates to a better and more desirable overall environment, making Minnesota a more desirable place to live.

    In my previous comment I argued that Republicans have historically converted a series of non-issues such school prayer, 264 card carrying communists in the State Department, etc. into wedge issues. I argue that “big government” is one of those non-issues that was successfully elevated into a very successful and ultimately damaging wedge issue. The essence of American reactionary ideology has been the creation or belief in non-existent enemies. In debate we call such enemies or opponents straw men. In absence of any real communist threat American reactionaries simply imagine communist threats, and then react to those threats. The idea that Obama is a socialist is a perfect example of these reactionary impulses. The straw men on display in the quote above are these people who assume the role of government at any level ought to increase ad infinitum, presumably until there is nothing left of private life or commerce. I can’t say that no such people exist anywhere, but I’ve never met one, and they are certainly not in position of power or influence. They are certainly not Democrats. The most frustrating thing about the reactionary use of straw men is that it short-circuits rational debate.

    The discussion at hand short-circuits because government growth elicits a reaction simply because it’s government growth. I don’t know anyone who sits around and says: “hey, let’s grow the government”. What I do see are people generating solutions to problems that involve government intervention. Of course not all ideas are good ideas, and not all problems are not amenable to government intervention or assistance. That’s why we’re supposed to have public discussions and debates. But the ideas have to be considered on their merits, not rejected simply they grow government. Again, the problem isn’t how big the government is, it’s what we want and don’t want the government to do.

    We can evaluate proposed government programs, do cost analysis, figure out how or if we can pay for them, and accept or reject the proposals. But this isn’t what happens when proposals are simply rejected on the basis that they are “government”.

  24. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/06/2010 - 10:05 pm.

    //..not all government is wasteful, inefficient, intrusive, and hostile. But enough of it is to provide fertile soil for those who promise to hold it down, clean it up, (snip)

    The idea that whatever the government does, should be done efficiently, is not a shrewd Republican insight, it’s common sense. I’ve never heard of any ideology or political movement that advocated inefficient and wasteful government. What’s missing here is any real thoughtful or informative study of inefficiency. You can point to anecdotes all day long but the fact is nothing in the universe is perfectly efficient. That’s actually a law of physics and it applies to government operations as well as conservation of energy.

    There are several very basic observations to make about government efficiency. The government by and large is more efficient than the private sector. From Medicare to student loans it provides more service for less money that the private sector. This is simply because on a basic level the government works for cost, not profit. Sure, you see the stories about the million dollar street signs and the six hundred dollar hammers, but those excesses almost always involve contracts with the private sector. If you doubt the efficiency of the government compared to the private sector look at your phone bill, or read the article in the New York Times about the Deep Water Horizen oil rig. Look at GM. It took me one and half years to get the DSL service I was supposed to get, for the price I was promised from Qwest- it was supposed to take a week. I’m sitting here looking at brand new blinds that are the wrong type because someone at the factory didn’t read the order. You want to talk about rude service people? Have you ever had problem with your cell phone bill? Have you ever gotten a sales call from a rude government worker? I like to say: “Well, that’s the private sector for you”.

    Furthermore, it is simply irrational to assume that the best way to make something more efficient is to cut resources. Efficiency sometimes comes at a price, less doesn’t always get you more. You make things more efficient by making them more efficient, not simply cutting budgets. We never had a rational informed discussion about government efficiency, we simply started cutting taxes on the magic plan.

    // I am FOR those few well administered programs that speak to real needs of the young and less fortunate in our community

    Fine, but let’s talk about those programs. Which programs do YOU think are worthwhile exactly? We never had the discussion about which programs and services were going to get cut because the magic plan didn’t promise less service, it promised better service, more efficiency, for less. Disgusted with government? Fine, but it’s irrational to assume the only way to fix things is to dismantle them. I’ve said before, arguing about the size of government is like trying to sort out the nature of gravity by arguing about ice cream flavors. “Smaller” isn’t always the answer anymore than “vanilla”.

  25. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/07/2010 - 06:50 am.

    Government isn’t growing all that much and what growth there is, isn’t driving the cost of government, or the attendant deficit. We are looking at a 7 billion dollar deficit next year, ant that amounts to 20% of the budget. We could eliminate state government altogether and that would save us only a billion bucks, leaving us just 6 billion more in deficit spending to eliminate one way or another.

    I am as appalled as anyone at the misuse of credit cards. But putting that sort of thing forth as a way to address the budgetary crisis is an exercise in the very purest form of denial.

  26. Submitted by Thomas Nacey on 06/07/2010 - 09:32 am.

    Eric, Good article. What about the “Tax shift”? We have seen state aid cut to counties, cities and other forms of local government only to show up as tax increases on the local level. As our aging population rely more and more on fixed income, how many of them will have to move out of their homes because they can’t afford the property taxes.
    Pawlenty’s Tax policy has put the burden of paying for government on the people who can least afford it.

    The notion that if we tax big business we will lose jobs is ridicules. The tax laws are written by business for business. In fact business income taxes make up 3% of the total state budget compared to individual income taxes that make up something like 25%.

    The Republicans have mastered the tax increase message so that Joe & Jill average think that once again they will be stuck with the tab. The wealthy business owners and high level executives just have to sit back and let public fervor drown out the facts.

    A tax shelter is not the shed in the back yard.

  27. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/07/2010 - 10:01 am.

    Tax laws cut lots of different ways. I don’t think we fully appreciate how disadvantageous they often are for small businesses because of how local they are, and how advantageous they are to large businesses who because they operate in different states and countries, find it easy to manage their affairs in ways that avoid taxation, basically shifting income to low tax jurisdictions.

    Maybe one of the worst consequences of our polarized political environment is that we no are no longer able to even have a conversation about tax reform. We need to think about ways to increase revenue while not hurting economic growth. Our current tax system does pretty much the opposite.

  28. Submitted by James Hamilton on 06/07/2010 - 01:27 pm.

    Many interesting comments, although it’s too bad ideology interferes to the extent it does.

    Inflation between 1960 and 2002 averaged 4.3%; 1976 – 2002, 4.5%, 1980 – 2002, 3.8%. Between January 1, 2003 and December 31, 2009,2.%.

    Obviously, Gov. Pawlenty’s ‘success’ owes a good deal to conditions beyond his control. But that’s never stopped any politician from taking credit or laying blame, has it?

  29. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/07/2010 - 03:01 pm.

    Minnesota has been headed for financial disaster for a long time now. It started considerably before Tim Pawlenty took office, but the nature and extent of the problem have become progressively clearer during his years in office. At the start of his administration, the governor had a bag of financial, economic, and accounting tricks available to him, none of which addressed the underlying problems in any meaningful way, but were useful in concealing the problem. For Gov. Pawlenty, that was always enough. But now at long last, that bag of tricks is empty. The last one in it, unallotment, striking as it did, at the heart of the separation of powers was at long last found to be contrary to law, surely signaling ending our decades long era of fiscal denial.

    Where do we go from here? The legislature, in this past session, once again did the one thing it does best. It deftly evaded the problems we face. But next year, the state will be facing a 7 billion dollar deficit, amounting to 20% of the state budget.

    Does anyone have any solutions? Apart from cutting back on the paper clip budget?

  30. Submitted by Bruce Johnson on 06/07/2010 - 11:36 pm.

    This topic, at 29 comments, has pushed more buttons for me than anything I’ve ever read on Minnpost, and mostly in response to the conversation in the comments rather than Eric’s piece.

    I’m from Walnut Grove and so have some feelings as well as knowledge of the subject referenced in the quote of John Van Hecke’s article in #2 above. In fact, during my school board terms 10 and more years ago I was involved in contract negotiations for the district. The district has been very successful in offering a good education to the students and at the same time holding a very conservative approach to salary and benefits relative to the region and the state.

    The main reason this was possible was there was an acknowledgement in contract of respect and autonomy for staff in doing their work and also a long tradition of financial stability and good management that avoided the crisis to crisis circumstances that have plagued some of our schools, and plagued the employment prospect of beginning teachers.

    Ironically, I first learned of Tim Pawlenty when he spoke at the MN Rural Education Association Banquet. I was there because one of our Principals was being honored. Pawlenty was introduced as being a possible future Governor. Since then I’ve followed his trajectory as most others have, from daily coverage of his terms in office.

    Van Hecke references the divide between rich and poor school districts, and efforts or lack thereof to minimize them. My nieces live in Eagan and have attended the same High School as the Pawlenty daughters. Though I wouldn’t necessarily put as much stock in the specific cuts referenced by John in his article, the point he and many other commenters made about state commitment to school districts is well made. Its not very long ago by my standards that the Ventura administration and the legislature made a solid commitment to full state funding of education, as opposed to the local/state combination we had been experiencing. In the time it took for this year’s seniors to grow from their elementary years we have moved to a point where we are going to fund this years education with next year’s money, and so forth. And we have forced local districts back to ward the levying and referenda that relies on unequal property wealth. (An interesting point about this district – due to immigration growth from 2000 census to 2010 will likely be significant. One reason for the growth is cheap housing.)

    The main point I took from Eric’s article, and an ongoing elephant in the room, is that Pawlenty’s claim of accomplishment could be enhanced if we could manage to have 4 years of negative economic growth in Minnesota instead of just 2. The second point taken is the terrible cost to our state that economic conservatives have vanished, and in turn have been replaced by shortsighted, cynical pols like Pawlenty, and in the public discussion voices exemplified by the likes of Thomas Swift and his stupid “scary smart” meme.

    Ignorance is not a virtue.

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