Gov. Tim Pawlenty heads into political holding pattern

Published 9:12 am Wednesday, December 22, 2010

ST. PAUL  — Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s office walls, desk and shelves are already bare. He bought a used Ford Escape to get around once a state trooper-driven SUV motors on without him. And the Minnesota Republican’s staff is eagerly distributing bullet-pointed brag sheets covering his eight years in charge.

After 20 years in city and state government, Pawlenty moves soon into a political holding pattern. He leaves office in about two weeks, a step that might actually heighten his exposure.

He hits the road in January for a book tour and plans to announce by the end of March if whether he’ll seek the Republican nomination for president. Despite taking all the steps of a presidential candidate, Pawlenty insists he’s genuinely undecided as he weighs the burden on his wife and two daughters, other career options and the likelihood of success.

With no big decisions left to make as governor, Pawlenty’s record is all but cast and one he plans to vigorously defend, judging by a series of exit interviews this week. He chafes at suggestions Minnesota’s quality of life has suffered and that he didn’t do enough to rid the state of persistent budget shortfalls.

In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press and other media outlets, Pawlenty said he believes history will show his tenure marked “the time that Minnesota finally came to terms with its excesses and got itself on a more sustainable and responsible path.”

Pawlenty said his legacy is one of tamping down spending growth and resisting legislative efforts to raise taxes rather than a single identifiable initiative or building. “This stuff doesn’t change overnight,” he said. “You don’t take a state that for most of its history has been one of the most liberal places in the country and turn it into a mainstream state in four or eight years.”

While Republicans controlled the Minnesota House during Pawlenty’s first term, there was always a Democratic counterbalance in the Senate. Democrats led both chambers throughout Pawlenty’s second term.

The political environment meant several marquee initiatives stalled soon after he put them forward: a constitutional amendment to cap state spending, new state powers to fight illegal immigration and hefty bonuses for “super teachers” who take on the toughest classroom assignments and give up usual job security.

That’s not to say Pawlenty will leave office with a blank slate of accomplishments.

He oversaw a rewrite of the state’s academic standards to implement more defined school benchmarks, he championed a merit-pay program for teachers, he won tax breaks for businesses that relocate to or expand in distressed towns and he signed noteworthy legislation favored by anti-abortion interests and pro-gun groups. He briefly pushed to reinstate the death penalty, but that drive went nowhere.

Pawlenty and legislative Democrats often pushed each other to the brink — and beyond. In 2005, there was a partial government shutdown before a budget agreement was reached. Four years later, Pawlenty stretched the bounds of executive authority to make deep budget cuts on his own that were ultimately overturned by the courts.

Early in his tenure, Pawlenty wasn’t shy about making waves on things frowned on by GOP leaders. Most notably, he pressed ahead on an initiative allowing state residents to buy prescription drugs from Canada despite opposition from then-President George W. Bush’s administration.

But as Pawlenty’s political stock rose — he was a vice presidential contender in 2008 and has been on lists of White House hopefuls since — allies and foes alike noticed the governor straying from party positions less often and saw his stances harden.

“He was always conservative, but I don’t know of anything in the last two years he bucked the party on. That’s not always good,” said former Senate Minority Leader Dick Day, a Republican who wants to see Pawlenty run for president.

When Pawlenty sought the job in 2002, there was some concern among fiscal conservatives about Pawlenty’s resolve. David Strom, who formerly led the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, said Pawlenty quickly erased those doubts, holding to his no-new-taxes pledge even when greeted with a $4.5 billion shortfall.

“When Pawlenty went into office (conservatives) thought they were getting a moderate status quo politician from Eagan. That’s not what people got,” Strom said. “With Pawlenty, what they got was a new, more moderate face to conservatism that people could identify with.”

Strom added, “He could have gotten away with modest tax increases, but he didn’t go there.”

Pawlenty didn’t quite put government on a starvation diet. He tried unsuccEr;-w 1/4U to get the state a share of casino profits by partnering with hard-luck Indian tribes. He embraced a 75-cent-per-pack charge on cigarettes so long as it was labeled a “health impact fee” instead of a tax. A host of user fees, fines and surcharges also rose on his watch.

After the deadly interstate bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Pawlenty opened the door to a gas tax hike, but later retreated. The Legislature enacted one through a veto override, the only time he was trumped.

With the help of temporary budget cuts, federal stimulus money and payment delays, Minnesota’s general fund spending for the current budget is smaller than the one before. On average, spending grew less than 1 percent per two-year budget since 2003.

Pawlenty’s successor, Democratic Gov.-elect Mark Dayton, inherits a $6.2 billion deficit though as costs rise, spending commitments snap back, IOUs come due and stimulus dollars go away. Pawlenty said he doesn’t consider that problem very daunting if one-time cuts he pursued are made permanent and spending is otherwise restrained.