After eight years, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty will soon leave the governor's office. DFL Gov.-elect Mark Dayton will take office Jan. 3. Pawlenty spoke with MPR's Morning Edition to discuss his tenure as governor and his future.
DEALING WITH LEGISLATURE
Cathy Wurzer: You earned a reputation as being a pretty savvy gamesman as governor. What was your secret to outmaneuvering the Legislature?
Gov. Tim Pawlenty: I think any governor has the bully pulpit of the single voice, being an executive you speak with that opportunity and it's different than the Legislature. They have many, many people. They go off in different directions; they're a little less organized. But the chief executive of the state or the chief executive of any operation, I think, really has the opportunity to define the debate in a way a larger group of people has a harder time doing. I was willing to draw some lines in the sand and back it up. And so, when it came to the big changes I thought the state needed -- keeping a lid on taxes and driving down spending, trying to reform education, health care and more -- I was willing to say, 'If it requires a special session, if it requires vetoes, if it requires a battle we'll have one,' but in the end we're going to make progress on these issues, and we did.
Wurzer: You've been criticized, though, for not having one big, homerun kind of achievement such as the Minnesota Miracle or MinnCare under Gov. Arne Carlson. Some people say it's because you didn't have a fully cooperative Legislature. Would you agree with that?
Pawlenty: I would certainly agree that I didn't have a fully cooperative Legislature. But I also reject the notion that progress is only defined by some as what more can government do that it's not currently doing. In my case, the need that I saw and the vision I saw for the state of Minnesota was that government spending was growing too fast, too far, for too long and it had to be reined in, and that change of government reduction is the reform and in fact it will be confirmed by the future.
When you look at the challenges the state is facing, the country is facing and most of the world are facing you have a government bubble. You have a management and labor just like General Motors of a decade ago. It ran up cost too high, too far, too fast, for too long; the revenues projected just didn't warrant it and it had to be restructured. And that's what's going to happen in Minnesota government and that's why the things that we have said about Minnesota's future -- the need to limit taxes, the need to reduce spending, the need to have market based reforms in health care, not government based reforms, and the need to bust up the teachers' unions' iron clad grip on schools and open them up for learning.
Wurzer: And you didn't do that.
Pawlenty: Well, we did do a lot of that. And so, those are the things we took on. The notion that accomplishment is some new government program I would say just the opposite. Our accomplishment is we reined in and reduced government ... not expanded it.
Wurzer: During your tenure, you faced a series of budget deficits and you solved them in part through a series of budget shifts, accounting shifts. In hindsight, did that leave the state in a good fiscal position?
Pawlenty: A couple of things, we had a unique time here over the past eight years because we experienced two recessions and the most recent one was the worst economic downturn since World War II, and almost every state has the same or similar circumstances to Minnesota, so it's not unique to Minnesota.
But this deficit that we're facing now, much of it can easily erased by simply making permanent the changes that we proposed during the last session and through my unallotments earlier. The legislature refused to do that.
It's not that I was unwilling to do that. I publicly and repeatedly said, 'make these unallotments permanent.' They refused to do that. I guarantee you that in the next few months they'll do it anyhow, so that decision or request I made will be affirmed, but this notion that I was unable to do that is factually not correct.
Wurzer: You're leaving with a projected $6.2 billion deficit. That doesn't look good.
Pawlenty: It goes like this: If you don't enroll in Obamacare, the $6.1 billion deficit becomes $5.7 [billion]. if you make all the unallotments that I did permanent that $5.7 [billion] becomes essentially $2.7 [billion], and if you just cut in half the rate of growth of state spending increase that gets that $2.7 [billion] down to $1.7 [billion] or less and then rest of it, I don't want to say is easy, but it's manageable. And frankly is no different than the rest of the country, so you can solve most of this deficit that the state is facing that seems very large, in my view, without breaking a sweat.
Wurzer: And that's looking out in the out years, as well? Because, as you know, there have been national news stories about other states facing big budget crisis even in the out-years, even in years to come, because of fiscal mismanagement.
Pawlenty: In the current two-year cycle that we're in, we're actually going to end in surplus, in the black, Cathy. So, it is the out-years, the two years after that, this deficit actually relates to. There is no current deficit in Minnesota. The current will end in the black. In every two years budget cycle that I've been governor the budget's been balanced, we've reduced taxes in this state. We've done government reform, health care reform, education reform, energy reform.
And so, to my critics who say not much got done, I would just respectfully disagree. And the deficit, again, is a fairly simple matter to dramatically reduce it or get rid of all of it if they simply make the reductions or payment deferrals permanent, which I told them to do last spring.
Wurzer: So, that would mean also the payment deferrals, the payments to schools, making that permanent as well?
Pawlenty: That's correct.
ADVICE FOR DAYTON
Wurzer: You have a lot of experience working with a legislature controlled by the opposite party. A governor like Dayton is going to face that same situation when he takes office next month. What advice do you have for him?
Pawlenty: I wouldn't purport to give him advice because while I get a long with him interpersonally, almost all of his political views are just fundamentally different than mine, so he's going to have a different message and a different approach. I'll obviously be rooting for the Republican Legislature to continue the kinds of the things I've been talking about.
But, again, the executive, whether it's me or a governor like Dayton or former governors, future governors -- they tend to have an advantage just because of the nature of the office or the position that it's just easier to lead of the division, to drive a message and to draw lines in the sand if you're in an executive position than if you're in the Legislature.
REGRETS OVER NOT RUNNING FOR 3RD TERM
Wurzer: I was a little surprised to hear that you expressed some regret about not seeking a third term knowing what you know now that there would be a Republican-controlled Legislature. Why? What would you like to do? What would you like to have done with a Republican-controlled Legislature?
Pawlenty: Well, you know I said that a little tongue and cheek the other day up in Duluth, and it was based on the hypothetical and me saying if I had known then what I know now, which is a complete sweep by the Republicans in both the House and the Senate in the Minnesota Legislature for the first time since party designation in the Legislature, would I have liked to stay as governor with that scenario? Well, yeah, I would have loved to have done that, but I made my decision some many months ago, almost two years ago, and I'm very comfortable with my decision.
I don't regret it in that regard, I just thought after having been here and fought really hard with a mostly Democratic Legislature for most of the years that I was here, it would have been nice to have a Legislature that would have been more reform-minded and more forward-leaning when it came to a number of the big initiatives.
There's many, many, many I could go through, but I'll just give you one example. I mean we've done some great education reforms in our state during my time. We threw out the school standards, got some new ones, had the first statewide performance pay program for teachers in the country. But when you look at the achievement gap, particularly for poor, disadvantaged children, I think one of the best things we could do for them is to give them more school choice, give them scholarships to be able to go to any school they want, public or private. And of course with the Democrats there, they are just so beholden to the teacher unions that they are, you know, unwilling to take on that kind of reform. It's unfortunate, and I think the Republicans would have been willing to do that.
Wurzer: And you could have done, as you say, more in the area of school reform and school choice.
Pawlenty: Of course. And that's just one of many examples. If you go down the list and look at health care, for example, Democrats try to take that in a government-centric model, Republicans try to take it in a market and consumer-based model. When you look at issues like tax reform and being pro-jobs and pro-business, Republicans would take that in a different direction than the Democrats. And so, again, we made progress on all of these things and stopped many of the bad ideas -- I think most of the bad ideas that the Democrats have put up. But with a Republican Legislature you just get so much more done.
Wurzer: Your critics say you have uneven follow-through. What do you say to that?
Pawlenty: We did some of that intentionally knowing it wouldn't pass, because the job of governor in part is to cast a vision for the future of the state, a direction, to create ideas, to get the debate going. With a Democratic Legislature we weren't ... thinking they were just going to pass all of our stuff, but I thought it was important to call them out and to try to show where they stood.
Their rhetoric is always, you know, we're for the poor and the disadvantaged, but the best thing that we could do for the poor and disadvantage is get them a skill or an education, and when they lock arms with the teacher unions and put the interest of a labor union movement ahead of what's in the best interest of our children and the students and our citizens for the future, that's a debate that's worth having. And whether they pass it or not, that's on them.
So, first of all, we did get a lot done and the record reflects that, and No. 2, for working with a mostly Democratic Legislature, there's going to be some differences of opinion and a lot of those folks, you look at the leadership of the DFL that served here when I was here ... they just aren't real open to doing things different.
LESSONS FROM TENURE
Wurzer: What's the biggest lesson you've learned as governor?
Pawlenty: Well, to keep good humor, because it's a challenging job but it's a very meaningful job, it's a tremendous responsibility and opportunity. Two things, I guess, Cathy: One is the brilliance of this state, while government has an important role to play, is really with the people of this state. They are kind, they are generous, they are charitable, they are engaged, they're knowledgeable, and you know the people of Minnesota is what makes this state great, and drawing on that strength.
Even though they don't always agree with you, most of them ... they'll say, 'look I didn't vote for you but here's my view,' and you can have a great discussion with them. So listen to them and I think they'll guide you well. And empower them and I think they'll do great thing. And then two, in this job you gotta be willing to kind of rise above as best you can the daily back and forth, because there's a lot of sniping that goes on. If you get dragged down into that it's, you know, you get mired down in a lot of snarky details and you gotta keep your eye on the big picture.
Wurzer: I'm thinking you're not going to take this opportunity with me to announce whether you'll run for president, but why would you even want the job?
Pawlenty: That's something I'm thinking about, mostly from the perspective of what does the country need. Is there something that I believe or that I've done that, you know, I can bring to the table that's unique or semi-unique? I love this country, I think it's the greatest country the world's ever known, I think it's got tremendous challenges, particularly in terms of its future financial obligations. It's not unlike Minnesota in the sense that Minnesota was living, you know, on government spending going up too fast for too long, like I said. But, you know, there's other considerations that go into it, and family and the other opportunities that may present themselves. So I just don't know for sure what I'm going to do. I'm certainly considering it but I just haven't finally decided.
Wurzer: Are you ready for the give and take of being on the national stage? It's a nasty business.
Pawlenty: You're talking to, you know, probably the first fiscal conservative governor the state's had in generations, or at least decades. ... What I've done here is to take on a culture that, while there's been some Republicans elected here or there, at least historically they've been more of what they used to call Rockefeller Republicans, but I'm the first one who said, 'you know, there's a new day, and there's some new rules and there's some lines in the sand.' And I took on a political culture here that leans pretty hard the other way, and so you get a lot of people sniping at you, but you just gotta keep your compass set and know who you are and what you believe and keep moving forward. Whether it's in politics or life, I think there are good lessons.
Wurzer: So you say you're prepared for the national stage, in other words.
Pawlenty: Well I'm not addressing the national stage.
Wurzer: At this point.
Pawlenty: No. Well, obviously anytime you take on a tough job whether it's that or something else, you gotta have thick skin.
(Interview transcribed by MPR News reporter intern Anissa Stocks and reporter Elizabeth Dunbar.)