The man who has the unenviable task of predicting the future of Minnesota's economy is stepping down.
After 26 years, Tom Stinson is retiring from his position as state economist, a role in which he made projections on the state's budget and undertook the economic forecasting state lawmakers use to set taxes and spending.
In the early 80s, inaccurate budget forecasting put the legislature in a tailspin, said former state Sen. Roger Moe, a Democrat. The legislature frequently had to convene in special sessions to balance the budget.
Under Stinson, Moe said, budget forecasting has been sound -- and understandable to the layman.
"Sometimes it's difficult for folks to explain the complexity of the budget," said Moe, a longtime Senate majority leader. "He was able to do it in ways that people like me could figure it out."
“Sometimes it's difficult for folks to explain the complexity of the budget... He was able to do it in ways that people like me could figure it out.”State Sen. Roger Moe
Many praise Stinson for his ability to stay neutral in the face of politics. Former Gov. Arne Carlson, a Republican, said Stinson always delivered his projections straight, without spin.
"I have no idea if he was a liberal, a conservative, a Democrat, a Republican or anything else," Carlson said. "All I know is that he gave us straight numbers, we appreciated them very much."
But Stinson, 70, did have some more public disagreements with the governors he served.
In January of 2008, Stinson was prescient in saying the U.S. economy was already in recession. He called it well before the official committee in charge of dating recessions declared the downturn had begun in December, the month before.
Stinson says income tax withholdings were the big clue for him. But then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, took issue with Stinson's assessment, saying "Tom Stinson tends to be a bit on the pessimistic side of things, to put it charitably."
Today, Stinson brushes the incident off.
"Part of the governor's role is to be a cheerleader of the state's economy, to be a booster of the state's economy, and he was playing his role," Stinson said. "I was playing my role, which was trying to give him and the people of the state a good idea of how serious the economic times were at that time."
On Monday, Stinson passed the forecasting baton to Laura Kalambokidis, a colleague from the University of Minnesota. Kalambokidis will be the first woman to serve as state economist in Minnesota history. Her credentials include a stint in the Office of Tax Analysis in the U.S. Department of Treasury in Washington.
Stinson plans to continue teaching at the University of Minnesota.
• 2012: Kalambokidis discusses Gov. Dayton's jobs plan
• Link: U of M economist discusses state tax rates
With his retirement, the state not only loses an expert economist, but someone with a lot of history. That was clear at a press conference where Stinson discussed his plans to retire and told stories.
Stinson recalled travelling to New York with his colleagues after the state government shutdown in 2011. They were going to meet with officials at Standard & Poor's about the state's credit rating. The two other big ratings agencies had already taken away the state's top-notch AAA credit rating and now Stinson worried S&P would do the same.
"In the back of our mind we knew we weren't going to be AAA from them but held out a tiniest hope," he said.
Stinson's hopes crumbled when they were directed to a different floor of the building than usual. In the past, they had met with S&P officials in a big bright conference room with views of Manhattan...where they were indulged with fancy treats. Not this time.
"No view of anything," he recalled. "Just a tiny conference room. No treats. And we knew we were toast."
Adding delay to demotion was that Stinson and his colleagues then were stuck in the traffic jam from a funeral procession when they left S&P.
He seemed comfortable telling this story perhaps because the state's finances, while still stuck with less than perfect credit ratings, are in much better shape with a budget surplus. And the state's economy is clearly in recovery. Stinson said those were his signals to step down.
"This is a good time to leave," he said. "It's not like a year ago when there was all this uncertainty out there with the fiscal cliff and what was going to go on there. It's not like it was a couple years ago when it looked like the U.S. economy might not even get out of the recession or anything like that. This is a good time to scale back my efforts."
Throughout his career, Stinson has won praise from state Legislators for his skill as an economist and his adherence to the facts.
"He is an absolute true public employee, one of the best in state government, without a doubt," Moe said.
Tom Stinson, by the numbers
3: The number of recessions Stinson has seen as state economist — July 1990 - March 1991; March 2001 - Nov. 2001; Dec. 2007 - June 2009.
6: The number of stock market crashes in Stinson's tenure — Oct. 19, 1987 (Black Monday); Oct. 27, 1997 (The 'mini crash'); Sept. 17, 2001 (9/11); Feb. 27, 2007 (Chinese stock collapse); Sept. 29, 2008 (U.S. financial crisis); May 6, 2010 (Flash crash).
51: The number of state budget forecasts in Stinson's time on the job.
774,200: Minnesota's job growth from 1987 to April 2013. In 1987, there were 1.97 million jobs in the state; in April 2013, 2.75 million. That's a 39 percent growth rate.
$14.1 billion: The growth in state spending since 1988-89 ($22.7 billion in 2013 dollars) and 2014-15 ($36.7 billion), a 62 percent growth rate.
$112.7 billion: The difference between Minnesota's economy in 2011 ($281.7 billion) and in 1987 ($169 billion, in 2011 dollars). That's a 67 percent growth rate.
Source: MPR News research