Pawlenty the Budget Cutter

by Joshua Culling

Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential blueprint is fairly clear. He wants a Reagan conservative, preferably with some executive experience, who can credibly communicate the campaign’s message that the federal government is bloated and broken, and that tough, principled action is required to fix it. While the GOP has the luxury of a very deep, talented bench, one candidate for VP that checks all the boxes is former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty.

The most prominent aspect of Pawlenty’s brief presidential campaign was the candidate’s style, not the substance of his record; the media couldn’t seem to get past his “Sam’s Club Republican” persona for a thorough examination of his tenure as Minnesota’s 39th governor. Upon doing so, it is clear that Pawlenty was one of the most impressive fiscally conservative governors to serve in the last decade — especially on the question of spending.

On taxes, Pawlenty made good use of his veto power. Over the course of his governorship, he vetoed $7.5 billion in total tax increases. When he took office in 2003, Minnesota had the country’s second-highest tax burden per capita; when Pawlenty left, his state had dropped out of the top ten in that category.

But it’s the spending side where Pawlenty is most impressive. Taxes are relatively easy for Republicans — the party is in lockstep in opposition to higher taxes. But the GOP had gone wobbly on spending in the past, only recently pledging to reduce the size of government under Speaker Boehner and the 112th Congress.

#more#And Governor Pawlenty was cutting spending before it was cool. In the 43 years before he assumed office, Minnesota state-government spending increased an average of 20.5 percent per two-year period. During Pawlenty’s eight years as governor, state spending increased an average of 0.93 percent per year. This is a remarkable turnaround for such a deep-blue state, especially when one considers the legislature was completely controlled by Democrats for half his tenure.

One specific spending fight that comes to mind took place in 2009, when Pawlenty cut $2.7 billion from the budget under what is known in Minnesota as “unallotment authority,” which allows the governor to make unilateral cuts to a budget even after it is passed and signed into law. His cuts were then reversed by the Minnesota Supreme Court, reopening a $3 billion budget deficit. The Democratic-controlled legislature immediately passed a massive income-tax hike, which the governor vetoed. Pawlenty didn’t budge from his no-tax pledge, insisted on balancing the budget with spending cuts, and ultimately won. The Democrats agreed to restore most of the $2.7 billion in spending cuts, the budget was balanced, and no one’s tax burden was increased. Pawlenty’s leadership on spending is a crucial part of the GOP’s evolution on the issue.

He also fits comfortably into the new GOP line on government-employee unions. Scott Walker is now famous for successfully standing up to public-sector unions in Wisconsin. Pawlenty should be too, for his principled stand during a transit-workers strike in 2004. Some of those workers were eligible for lifetime health-care after working only a decade; Governor Pawlenty sought to change that and bring retiree health benefits in line with economic reality. He didn’t wobble, and after a 45-day strike, the union came back to the negotiating table, agreed to concessions, and taxpayers won.

There has been considerable backlash among the conservative grassroots against Republicans who spent years wasting their money. That is reflected in the current makeup of the House of Representatives, which now legislates under a clear mandate to reduce the size of government. Mitt Romney is committed to the same principles, and will likely choose a running mate with a track record of cutting budgets under considerable pressure from pro-spending interests. Tim Pawlenty did so as governor of Walter Mondale’s Minnesota, making him an excellent choice for the vice presidency.

— Joshua Culling is state-affairs manager for Americans for Tax Reform.

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