Gov. Tim Pawlenty and state Sen. Tom Bakk both were speaking at about the same time and in the same building this morning, but they couldn’t have been farther apart in the ways that they addressed the problems of the state’s economy.
Stylistically, the preppy governor, frequently mentioned as a potential candidate for president, was surrounded by charts, showing the “unsustainable growth” of government in Minnesota over about the last half-century.
The burly Bakk, one among many DFLers hoping to become governor, was surrounded by unemployed trades workers. The senator was talking about the “unacceptable” state of the state’s economy.
Pawlenty was, as always, smooth while proposing a constitutional amendment that would cap the state general fund budget at the level of revenue received during the previous two-year budget. He believes that the amendment would discipline future governors and legislatures to spend “what’s in the checkbook; not what we hope is in the checkbook next year.”
Bakk was, as is often the case, emotional as he spoke of the plight of working people in Minnesota.
“Tomorrow, 500 people will get their last paycheck,” Bakk said while talking about the vast numbers of unemployed. He said that by Christmas, unemployment would reach 50 percent among people in construction-related trades.
Bakk had a question for those in the audience of union leaders and workers.
“How many of you have a friend who has lost a job? Hands up,” he said.
Hands went up across the room.
“That’s what Minnesota looks like,” Bakk said.
It was a showdown of charts versus hearts.
With his charts, Pawlenty was saying that Minnesota’s budget crisis is a product of a government that spends too much. Had his amendment — which he calls “the spending accountability amendment” — been in place since the 1962-63 biennium, the governor says there would have been $22.3 billion “unspent,” a reduction of 7.5 percent.
A leaner government, he believes, would create a more robust economy.
Bakk’s view, though, is dramatically different.
“The deficit we face is not the problem,” he said. “The deficit is the symptom of the problem. The economy of Minnesota is performing badly.”
Bakk’s theory: Put people to work, and the dollars again will flow into the Department of Revenue.
Pawlenty’s theory: Spend only money that’s in the checking account and state government won’t constantly be “on a roller coaster ride” when it comes to balancing the budget.
In conjunction with that, Pawlenty would argue that lower taxes would create a state more friendly to jobs creation.
Pawlenty and Bakk do seem to agree — partially — on a few things:
1. Both believe that government is a problem.
Pawlenty thinks government spends too much. His amendment, he said, would “require future legislatures and future governors to be more prudent.”
Bakk believes that government, or in this case the governor, hasn’t done enough hustling to help put people back to work.
Bakk wants the governor to call a special session so that the Legislature and the governor could enact a bonding bill in December, rather than waiting till after the session begins in February. With an early bonding bill, Bakk said, all the paperwork and bidding could be complete by spring and work could begin. Waiting until the session starts, he said, means that bonding projects couldn’t start until late in the summer.
2. Both believe that the state needs to be more “business friendly.”
Pawlenty believes that only by reducing government — and thereby reducing taxes — can the state business climate be improved.
Bakk, however, believes the Legislature should come up with a package of investor tax credits, most of which wouldn’t kick in for about four years. He also thinks that whoever is governor needs to be a better cheerleader.
“The things this governor says about our state, why would anybody want to come here and start a business?” Bakk said. “… It comes to the governor setting a tone.”
Bakk spoke of how Gov. Rudy Perpich went to Edmonton to talk developers into building the Mall of America. He noted that at the time, people called Perpich “Gov. Goofy,” but that the mall remains the state’s largest tourist attraction.
“You have to go anyplace any time” to sell others on the idea of locating in Minnesota.
3. Deep down, both understand that neither will take the other seriously.
Pawlenty seemed to laugh off Bakk’s idea of a special session for quick action on a bonding bill.
Both Bakk and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller said they’d seriously consider the governor’s amendment, although they were curious about details.
Before Pawlenty’s amendment could get on the ballot for an up-or-down vote by Minnesotans, it first would have to get past both DFL-controlled Legislature. In other words: no chance.
Bakk and Pogemiller also noted that during Pawlenty’s years in office, the governor has never presented a budget that would have meant the requirements of his proposed amendment. They also said that there doesn’t appear to be anything in the amendment that would take into account the gigantic funding shifts the governor used to “balance” the current budget.
4. Both were adept at using statistics.
Pawlenty’s chart shows that since the 1962-63 period, Minnesota’s state budget has grown from less than $5 billion to more than $30 billion. But the chart does not show inflation, growth of the economy or growth of the population.
Government alone isn’t growing. Over the time period covered by Pawlenty’s chart, the state’s population has grown from 3.5 million in 1962 to 5.2 million in 2008. While government has been growing, the state’s economic power also has grown, from a gross domestic product of $10.7 billion in 1962 to $262 billion in 2008. Personal income has grown from $14 billion in 1969 (data before that were unavailable) to $224 billion in 2008.
Bakk had stats of his own: Since 1994, when he first showed up as a legislator, the cost of all state and local government has fallen from 17 percent of income to 15.5 percent.
And on the debate goes.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.