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Why Governor Pawlenty's Criticism of the Federal Stimulus Bill Is Smart Politics

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A recent article at MinnPost explores how Governor Tim Pawlenty is out of step with many state leaders, and governors across the nation, in taking a "hands-off" approach when it comes to lobbying lawmakers on Capitol Hill to pass federal stimulus legislation.

Pawlenty has not always been shy when it comes to applauding federal officeholders, even Democrats, for what he believes are good ideas - when it suits his purpose. During his budget presentation last month, Pawlenty credited President Barack Obama for not wanting to raise taxes during the current economic crisis. Opposition to tax increases as a method to solve the state's budget problems is a stated priority of the Governor, and has been a defining principle of his administration.

But if receiving federal aid, and thus alleviating the need for some budget cuts or the DFL legislature's temptation to raise taxes, is in Minnesota's best interest, why then did Pawlenty never get behind the federal stimulus bill which would aid his state and its nearly $5 billion projected budget deficit?

Indeed, Pawlenty has been consistently critical ever since talk of the federal stimulus legislation began - including more than two months ago during his December 4th press conference on the budget forecast. On that afternoon, he severely criticized the federal government, its stimulus packages, and its mindset to "Pay credit card debt with credit cards." Pawlenty flatly accused the feds of being "engaged in a very elaborate ponzi scheme" that is "out of control" and "addicted to a culture of debt."

Those are strong words for a governor about to receive hundreds of million dollars of 'free money' to bolster his state's general fund. Or are they?

For Pawlenty to have done otherwise - and lobby federal policymakers for more spending - would have run counter to his carefully tailored public image and stated policy positions. Pawlenty has carved out a very workmanlike 'common-sense' approach to budgeting that is no doubt appealing to many Minnesotans. For example, during his 2009 State of the State Address, Pawlenty likened the state economic and budget crises to a Minnesota family sitting around a kitchen table:

"Imagine a typical Minnesota kitchen table. A mom and dad have just tucked the kids into bed with a kiss and a prayer, and they come back to the table to confront economic reality. On the table are bills, notices and a notepad with a budget that's tighter than it's ever been. Hope and fear are also at the table. How do we pay these bills? How do we fix the car? How do we pay this mortgage? How are we going to afford college or even retire someday? The same emotions, concerns and urgency at that Minnesota kitchen table must be at all the tables we sit at here at the Capitol - the budget hearing table, the agency tables, and the negotiating tables."

Because Pawlenty's balanced budget proposal relies, in part, on significant spending cuts, including cuts in the areas of higher education and health care, it makes sense that the Governor remains critical of what he deems to be wasteful spending in Washington, D.C. and its "ponzi scheme" stimulus packages. By establishing the premise that government spending (be it federal or otherwise) can be wasteful, makes it just a tad easier for him to propose cuts in his own budget for existing state funding of social services programs.

The fact that a recent poll found 41 percent of Minnesotans favored spending cuts to balance the budget compared to just 4 percent wanting tax increases also strengthen the governor's resolve on this issue, though a plurality, 49 percent, preferred a combination of the two (SurveyUSA, January 2009).

In other words, Pawlenty is putting his ideological purity ahead of the get-what-you-can mindset most governors seem to be taking when it comes to receiving federal money during these trying economic times. In doing so, Pawlenty is undoubtedly enhancing his credentials as a potential candidate for national office, as analyzed by The Fix's Chris Cillizza yesterday at the Washington Post.

Pawlenty can now speak from the rare perch of being a governor who did not beg for a 'bailout,' even in the midst of a state budget crisis. In short, Pawlenty is taking the Republican mantra of "individual responsibility" to a macro, statewide level, and his battle cry against wasteful government spending in D.C. is something that the conservative base of the GOP will always get behind.

Moreover, Pawlenty will look particularly prescient if Washington's 2009 stimulus plan fails to invigorate the nation's economy. No doubt, the Governor has already taken note of the lackluster results of Spring 2008's stimulus legislation signed by President George W. Bush, as well as the troubled financial industry bailout of Autumn 2008.

All the while, and this is where the Governor is particularly shrewd, Pawlenty knows full well he can (and will) accept any federal stimulus money that gets doled out to the Gopher State. But he can do so with ideologically pure hands, while he keeps one eye on his home state and another, potentially, on Iowa.

On the other hand, if the stimulus package works, and the U.S. (and Minnesota) economy is revived in the next few years, what is the worst that can happen? Governor Pawlenty, already popular in the state, can simply ride the wave of an economic recovery right back into the Governor's mansion for an unprecedented third-straight four-year term.

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  • "Pawlenty is putting his ideological purity ahead of the get-what-you-can mindset most governors seem to be taking when it comes to receiving federal money during these trying economic times."

    Regardless of the nature of the ideology, one must respect a politician who puts ideology ahead of opportunity. As a bonus, in this case, I happen to agree with his ideology, too!

    Though you do make a good case for this being a win-win situation for the governor. A rarity for the Republicans these days, I suppose.

  • Pawlenty is right about one thing. You cannot get out of debt by taking on more debt. At least not unless you put any new credit you get into a plan for changing the reason you have a debt problem in the first place. You need to invest that new money into tools that will ensure you will have an additional source of income going forward, so that you will not need to ask for money again later. You need to use that new money to find a better way of doing things, that quite frankly brings in more money than you used to earn. And even if you have such a plan you probably also need a bit of luck for your plan to work out. One must ask, what is America's plan for the $600B in extra debt it just took on over the next few months. Is it going to be invested to implement a change of strategy, or will it be used to pay bills as usual?

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