Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, in Washington for the National Governors Association meeting, took a few moments to chat with NRO.
“It really is all-economy, all-the-time here,” Pawlenty said, with a lot of the discussion focusing on the recently-passed stimulus bill. “Only four out of 22 Republican governors supported the stimulus; the rest opposed or more specifically expressed objections. The vast majority didn’t like it in some manner in other. It’s not the bill we would have put together, but it’s law now, and so now we have to look at how we implement it.”
Pawlenty recently appeared on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show, and fairly effectively rebutted the host’s charge that those who criticized the stimulus bill were hypocrites for accepting the funds now that it had passed.
“I have a number of responses to that argument,” Pawlenty said. “Minnesota ranks forty-sixth in terms of getting federal spending in relation to the amount of taxes paid — for every dollar we sent in to Washington, we get about 72 cents back. We’re a major payer of the federal government’s tabs, unlike many other states that I won’t mention. I say, when you’re paying to buy the pizza, it’s okay to have a slice. Now, if you were a liberal Democratic governor and you opposed military spending, are you not going to take National Guard funding? If you were a liberal who opposed No Child Left Behind, are you going to take federal funding in education? So I’m wondering why that standard is only being applied now to conservatives.”
“All the governors are going to take almost all of the money. I’m not aware of any governor turning down a substantial amount. There’s some talk about not taking unemployment insurance — about 2 percent of the stimulus — because it expands obligations in unemployment insurance, and might require a tax increase later on down the road. But the point is moot to Minnesota, because our benefit level is already beyond what the federal government would require.”
(Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal is one of the governors who are turning down the unemployment insurance funding.)
Asked about California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s statement that his state would accept any funds that other governors turn down, Pawlenty didn’t quite criticize his fellow governor by name, but made clear his disapproval.
“If some governors were to turn down the money in order to save money — and really, they’re not, they’re just looking at teeny tiny portion — if you’re trying to save money, and some other governor then spends it somewhere else, you haven’t gotten anywhere
. . . It’s absolutely fair to say many states have structural spending problems that stimulus money wallpapers over it. It just delays the day of reckoning when reform is really needed. To use an example, in Medicaid, states pay a part of the costs, the federal government pays a part of the costs, and everyone knows the program is mathematically and demographically unsustainable. We need dramatic reform. But the federal government is about to give us a mountain of cash — but if you take the money you can’t change eligibility requirements. That ties the hands of states from enacting the reforms that that program needs . . . The bill includes lots and lots of education money, even through many states weren’t proposing to cut education. I had actually proposed a slight increase, under a reform proposal that would enact pay-for-performance. Now we’re getting a truckload of education money, and even the Democrats in my state wouldn’t have proposed that much spending under these economic circumstances. So the stimulus funding distorts the spending focus of the states and papers over the need to reform these programs.”
Pawlenty said he had quite a few objections to the way the stimulus bill turned out, but there were three main areas, starting with the fact that the country is spending money it doesn’t have. “We’re going deeper and deeper into debt by the moment, by the hour and by the day.” He said that massive borrowing from China and sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East and other places are creating the possibility of a government debt equivalent of the mortgage crisis.
His second major objection is how the stimulus funds are spent, calling the bill “misguided, mistargeted, and misdirected.”
“We needed funding for meat and potatoes, basic infrastructure projects like roads and bridges, and instead we got a meandering spending spree that goes well beyond those categories.”
Pawlenty’s third objection is that President Obama is not governing in the way that he promised. “He campaigned as the guy who was going to change the old partisan ways, but when push came to shove, he let congressional leaders have their usual spending bill . . . I think there was a little bit of false advertising. He was going to bring the parties together — congressional leaders went into their old-fashioned spending mode, and he didn’t put his foot down. I think he could have dramatically reshaped that bill if he had wanted to get Republicans on board.”
Pawlenty provided a brief update on his state’s still-unresolved Senate race, and the seemingly endless recount and legal fight between Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken.
“I know some people have grown weary of this, but I think Norm Coleman has a good chance to get this turned over in the courts . . . The bulk of the dispute is over absentee ballots and which ones should be in and which ones shouldn’t be in, or shouldn’t have been in to begin with. Coleman is appealing about 3800 ballots, and Franken allegedly has about 900 ballots they’re going through. The universe that they’re dealing with is less than 5000 ballots, and Franken leads by 225 or so. So there are still a lot of ballots to sort out. But we may not know for a month, or for several months . . . It puts [Minnesotans] at a disadvantage when you only have one senator, and major legislation is being considered and debated. I would appoint someone temporarily, but the law doesn’t allow it, I can only appoint someone for a permanent vacancy.”
Finally, Pawlenty said that he would decide whether to run for a third term as Minnesota’s governor after the current legislative session, scheduled to wrap up this May.