The man so often pictured a couple of steps behind Gov. Tim Pawlenty is headed out the door — some would say through that sweet government-to-private revolving door.
Tom Hanson, commissioner of Minnesota Management and Budget, announced Wednesday that he’s leaving what has been the state’s key post since the collapse of the economy to join the Minneapolis law firm of Winthrop & Weinstine.
His sense of timing is interesting. He’s leaving on Dec. 1. The next day, the office he’s headed will release its new economic forecast.
“I told Tom Stinson [the state economist] that I suppose this means he’ll be releasing a very positive forecast,” said Hanson.
Hanson had to cope with bad times
There haven’t been many of those in the 3½ years he’s served as Pawlenty’s right hand on budget matters. Hanson moved from being a deputy chief of staff in the governor’s office just about the time the economy tanked across the country.
“Stinson came to me at the end of 2007 with warnings of what was going to happen,” Hanson recalled in an interview. “As the recession continued, month after month, it became daunting at times. People get laid off, they don’t buy things. When they don’t buy things, manufacturers stop making things. That means more people get laid off.”
And all the while, revenues collected by the state kept falling even as the population grew and needs increased.
With revenues in the current biennium about the same as they were in the 2006-07 biennium, there were two approaches to balancing the budget: the Pawlenty approach, which was based on the premise of no new taxes (plus a lot of numbers juggling and shifts) and an approach favored by DFLers, which was to increase taxes.
Pawlenty has prevailed. Not surprisingly, since Hanson served at the pleasure of the governor, he shared Pawlenty’s approach, right down to those controversial unallotments.
In a conversation Wednesday, Hanson was reminded of how he had insisted to the media that the unallotments were a perfectly legal tool for the governor to use. It turned out that the courts didn’t agree with either the governor or Hanson.
“But what happened in the end?” Hanson asked.
Eventually, a win
The courts said the governor had been out of bounds in using the unallotments as he had, but then the Legislature, controlled by the DFL, collapsed and gave Pawlenty virtually every nickel he wanted to unallot.
“We won” is how Hanson put it.
That “we won” comment is a more provocative statement than typically has been heard from Hanson over the years.
He has known — and liked — Pawlenty since the governor was a freshman legislator from Eagan. Hanson, who worked for the Republican caucus when Pawlenty was first elected to the House, has managed to sound reasonably bipartisan in his presentations to legislative committees and the media.
There were times even when the governor and Hanson almost seemed to disagree.
During the depths of the recession, for example, Pawlenty often would lambaste President Obama’s stimulus programs. After Pawlenty would lash out at the stimulus programs, he’d leave the room. Then, Hanson would talk to reporters about how stimulus funds would be used to help balance the state budget.
Hanson defends both positions — Pawlenty’s attacks and the state’s use of the funds to fill huge budget holes.
“I believe you can disagree with the federal policy, but somebody was going to get the money,” Hanson said. “I thought it was justified for us to get every penny we could.”
It is a perfectly logical time for Hanson — and other commissioners — to leave. The terms of commissioners end when the governor’s term ends.
But is it appropriate for Hanson to be making the move he’s making? Is this just another classic case of a government official taking his insider knowledge into the private sector, presumably for more money than he’s made as a public servant?
Hanson to do lobbying
Yes, Hanson will be a lobbyist with the firm. There is state law that puts a one-year prohibition on commissioners from lobbying on behalf of clients they previously regulated.
But he says his role in government is different from the role of the commissioners of such agencies as the Pollution Control Agency or Commerce Department. He’s had no direct involvement with regulated clients.
Rather, he’s been Pawlenty’s numbers guy at a time when the numbers have mostly been grim.
“Sometimes the decisions are hard,” Hanson said. “But the processes for making those decisions are straight out of Management 101.”
For example, when the governor wanted to cut costs in something like Health and Human Services, the process would work like this: Hanson would come up with the big-picture numbers. It would be up to Cal Ludeman, the Health and Human Services commissioner, to explain the impact the cuts would have on hospitals, nursing homes, real people.
All points would be discussed, Hanson said, and then the governor would make the decision.
Hanson says that he understands that there has been “short-term” pain visited on some by the budget decisions made. But, he’s a Pawlenty guy. He’s also a believer that for the “long-term” good, Minnesota needs to be a more business-friendly place if it is to simulate private-sector jobs.
The strength of Hanson in these last, hard economic years is that he’s tried to keep the numbers objective and attempted to understand that political debate isn’t personal, but is about differences in opinion. Even in combative situations with legislators, he’s tried to stay cool. On the rare occasions he’s failed to stay cool, he’s not been afraid to pick up the phone the morning after a too-heated dispute and apologize. (Legislators, it should be noted, seldom feel the need to apologize.)
For a man who expresses Pawlenty-like concern for “behemoth government,” Hanson speaks with great fondness and respect for the people in government he’s led. They’re dedicated pros who, even in these hard times, have been a joy to work with, he say. Sometimes, in fact, laugh-out-loud funny to work with.
Example: Hanson is a huge Vikings fan. A few weeks ago, he came to the office distraught and disgusted over the performance of his team and quarterback Brett Favre.
“I could pass that well,” he told Stinson.
The next day, Hanson had a breakfast meeting and arrived at the office late.
“Where’s Hanson?”someone asked Stinson.
“I think he’s trying out for the Vikings,” Stinson responded.
Hanson heard the story, and the next morning, there was a picture of Hanson’s face Photoshopped into Favre’s uniform on Stinson’s door.
There were laughs all around. (Hanson looks a little more like a sportswriter than an athlete.)
Stinson, as usual, got the last word. When Hanson told the old economist he was leaving the administration, Stinson shook his head knowingly.
“You’ve been waived to Tennessee,” Stinson said.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.