ST. CLOUD, MINN. — One lone protester stood along a barricade outside the St. Cloud Civic Center Wednesday morning. The sign he held, aimed presumably at Gov. Tim Pawlenty, asked that he be allowed to “marry his partner of 17 years.”
The guy might as well have stayed home, since Pawlenty’s sixth State of the State address to his fellow Minnesotans would contain none of the rhetoric on social issues some on the right have used as political currency in recent years. In fact, with a current state deficit of some $373 million and a looming economic forecast some believe will set the shortfall as high as $800 million, a sure bet would have had Pawlenty sticking to bread-and-butter issues and striking a somewhat downbeat tone.
Which is exactly what he did right off the bat. Pawlenty quoted Charles Lindbergh, “a young man from Central Minnesota” who “made an historic journey alone, in an airplane across the Atlantic” some 80 years ago. After the flight, according to the governor, “he said just what you might expect a Minnesotan to say: ‘Well, I made it.’ ” (He ended his speech with a turn on this inspiring phrase as well — substituting “we” for “I” — which is maybe indicative of where the governor’s morale is these days.)
Talk about not setting expectations too high. The idea, apparently, was to stir that ever-cloying Minnesota modesty in what normally would be a celebratory year: The state’s 150th birthday.
“Our economy has grown and evolved,” Pawlenty continued in his opening remarks, and if by “evolved” he means “tanked,” it’s hard to argue. The governor tried to keep things upbeat, then, by listing a host of famous Minnesotans and pointing out that the host city recently had “won a Gold Medal as the most livable city in the world” — which just begged for the rejoinder “perhaps not if you’re a Somali or a Jew.”
But Pawlenty gained genuine momentum when he rattled off a number of “we’re number one” items, including voter turnout, home ownership, ACT scores and “sugar beets, sweet corn, green peas and turkeys.”
Afterward, during the DFL response, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher said she found “the governor’s speech higher on inspiration and vague on specifics,” and later, “the speech fell short; he was not calling us to action.”
Wasn’t she listening? Not calling us to action? He was calling us to dinner!
Transportation and taxes
But seriously, folks, Pawlenty did make his position clear on a number of staple issues, and even managed to garner some enthusiastic applause from the roughly 300 lawmakers, dignitaries, staffers and Capitol groupies assembled in the spacious Glenn Carlson Hall. He invoked “military families” as well as the I-35W bridge collapse and the “historic flooding across southeastern Minnesota,” in a properly reverent and somber way.
Then he launched into the swagger that indicated what his tone will be for the 2008 session. “Our state is strong, even as we are challenged by circumstances,” Pawlenty said emphatically. “Minnesotans are understandably concerned about a fragile economy, rising health-care and energy costs, making ends meet and government’s never-ending claims on their pocketbooks.”
Got that, Democrats? Hands off the paychecks! In case anyone missed the point, he picked up the tax thing again: “Government must learn to live within its means. We should not add to the burden on Minnesota families by raising their taxes.” This drew strong applause.
Then yet again, in what was sure to be his sound bite in the next news cycle: “In the meantime, I still have an important tool to restrain taxes and spending. I call it the taxpayer protection pen, otherwise known as the veto pen.” And then he waved a red pen in the air. This groaner actually got half the room on its feet for a moment.
The one bit of actual policy announced also involved taxes, with Pawlenty claiming he’ll create “the 21st Century Tax Reform Commission that will recommend tax reforms for our 21st century economy” — which until now has been a job of something called “the Legislature.” The governor also talked big about clean energy, “green-collar jobs” (sure to be the catch phrase of the session on both sides) and reducing “greenhouse gas emissions,” which is the Republican way of acknowledging climate change without actually uttering the phrase.
He plugged his own bonding-bill plans in a green way as well: “This year I’m asking the Legislature to approve up to $20 million in revenue bonds to fund low-interest loans for communities to encourage the installation of micro-energy technologies such as home-based solar, next-generation windmills, geothermal heating, and other renewable energy sources.”
Warning, head-butting ahead
Ah, yes, the Legislature. Remember it? The governor is certainly aware he’s dealing with strong DFL majorities in both the House and Senate, so he has to extend an olive branch once in a while. He did on the subject of transportation, which is where most of the head-butting will be this session.
“Some differences of opinion exist regarding transportation funding,” Pawlenty gallantly conceded. “But we all agree on one thing: We cannot continue the stalemate that has existed for three decades over these issues. I remained hopeful we can overcome the politics and rhetoric of this debate and pass a bipartisan transportation bill this season.”
Well, the governor’s hopes would have been dashed pretty quickly in the hallways of the civic center immediately after his speech. Rep. Marty Seifert and Sen. David Senjem, the minority leadership, made it clear that the transportation bill being offered by Democrats has one fatal flaw: It has a gas-tax increase in it. “Living within your means means not raising taxes,” Seifert said. “It’s a regressive tax, and we’re not going to be putting it on the working class.”
One the DFL side, Kelliher certainly sounded a bell on her party’s view of the governor’s no-new-taxes fiscal management. “We bounced from one budget to another,” she said, “because we’ve been handcuffed by the governor’s political pledge and paralyzed by the scope of the challenges in front of him.”
Everyone mentioned “compromise,” but the feeling certainly wasn’t in the air.
In his own words
In fact, the governor himself did not say the word. Running the text of the address through TagCrowd, a web application that reads and recognizes word frequency in texts and “visualizes” them, a few themes pop out. Pawlenty mentioned “economy” nine times, but said “energy” 13 times, almost as many as “health,” at 14.
He said “jobs” (14) more than he said “tax” (12), but both fell short of “teachers,” at 16 utterances. On the other end, he said “strong” or “talent” four and three times, respectively, and only mentioned “accountability” four times. Contrast that with his state addresses in 2004 and 2005, when he mentioned “accountable” or “accountability” seven times. Apparently in an economic downturn, there’s less cash and accountability to go around.
The guv said “green” twice, “grow” six times, “growth” three times and “renewable” twice. In 2003, his first State of the State, he said none of these words. That year, however, he was big on “crisis” (13) and “deficit” (9). This year, there was no “crisis” and only three references to deficit, which could be because this budget crunch happened on his watch; it’s not one he inherited.
This year there’s been worry and rhetoric over creating and maintaining jobs in the state, and Pawlenty said the word “job” 14 times. But that’s nothing compared to 2003, when he said it 23 times. In six state addresses, Pawlenty has used the word “job” or “jobs” 69 times, but only once last year.
This year Pawlenty said “military” five times, which was more than any other year except for 2007, when he invoked “military” 15 times. And this year he managed to say “war” four times without ever mentioning “Iraq,” “Afghanistan” or “terrorism.” In fact, the governor rarely says “Iraq” (only six times out of six speeches).
Perhaps surprisingly, for someone who comes across as pro-military and hawkish, Pawlenty does not say “war” very often, using it only 16 times and in only two of the six years. Then again, some old leftie critics of the governor wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he only has said “love” seven times, also only in two years.
We can tell what type of governor Tim Palwenty really is, perhaps, by one of the few words he has used in every address, for a total of 53 times. The word? “Taxes.”
G.R. Anderson Jr., a former reporter and senior editor for City Pages, covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.