DFLer Entenza inflates role in '05 showdown with Gov. Pawlenty

Matt Entenza
Gubernatorial candidate Matt Entenza speaks to delegates at the 2010 DFL convention at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center Saturday, April 24, 2010 in Duluth, Minn.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

In 2005, Gov. Tim Pawlenty agreed to a 75-cent fee on a pack of cigarettes to help solve a budget impasse with the Legislature.

That year marked the state's first-ever partial government shutdown. It also marked the first and only time Pawlenty agreed to a significant revenue increase to balance the state's budget.

Democrat Matt Entenza was House Minority Leader at the time.

Now, as a candidate for governor, he's claimed credit for getting Pawlenty to agree to the fee in radio ads -- "As a state leader, Matt Entenza faced down Tim Pawlenty and won for our schools..." -- and during campaign speeches.

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"And that's why in 2005 when Tim Pawlenty wanted to gut MinnesotaCare, I'm proud that I and Dean Johnson, the Senate leader, stood up to him and saved MinnesotaCare," Entenza told the audience at the Minnesota chapter of the National Association of Social Workers forum on June 4.

"And we not only saved it, but you'll know, with trembling pen it was the one time that Tim Pawlenty was forced to raise some revenue, and we not only put it into saving and expanding MinnesotaCare but we also put it into our schools."

But that's not how it happened. First, it was Pawlenty who proposed the Health Impact Fee, not Democrats in the House or Senate. While Pawlenty publicly proposed the fee in the closing days of the legislative session, he privately floated the idea to DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson several weeks before that.

Johnson told MPR News in April of 2005 that the Republican governor raised the issue:

"I was riding with him. He looked me in my brown, Norwegian eyeballs and said, 'Have you considered a health care fee?' 'Health care fee?' I said. 'What is that?' He said, 'You know what it is,' he said. I said, 'No, I want to hear you say what it is.' And he said, 'Well, it has to do with cigarettes at the wholesale level.'"

Johnson could not be reached for comment to discuss Entenza's claim.

Steve Sviggum, a Republican who served as Speaker of the House in 2005, declined to comment because of his current role as Commissioner of Labor and Industry.

Republican Dick Day, who was Senate Minority Leader at the time, says he couldn't remember the specifics of the budget talks.

Pawlenty told MPR News in May that Entenza was exaggerating his role.

"He's saying as Minority Leader that he had a role to play? I think that would be a stretch," Pawlenty.

Pawlenty isn't alone.

"I don't remember Matt Entenza playing any particular role," said DFL Sen. Linda Berglin.

Berglin was intimately involved in the 2005 budget negotiations because Pawlenty proposed taking money from the state's MinnesotaCare program to plug the budget gap. Berglin, chair of the Health and Human Services Budget division, says she negotiated directly with Pawlenty on the issue. She says Entenza was a bit player in the negotiations.

"I certainly don't think he should claim a major leadership role because, at the time, the Democrats in the House were in the minority so it was really a matter of getting the governor and the Republicans in the House to agree to something," Berglin said.

But Entenza points out that Republicans controlled the House by only a 68-66 margin. He says he played a bigger role than his leadership title indicated.

"Although I was technically the Minority Leader, I was only the Minority Leader by one vote in 2005 so if any one Republican came over to join us, which they did many times, we were effectively in control of the House," Entenza said.

Yet some of Entenza's own DFL House colleagues disagree. Rep. Al Juhnke says House Democrats were mostly on the sidelines during the 2005 budget talks.

"Anything that happened was probably in no small part due to the Democrats in the Senate," Juhnke said. "I don't recall us supporting those final bills in those years."

Both Juhnke and Berglin suggest Entenza is inflating his role in 2005 in hopes of creating a definite contrast between his leadership and that of House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who is also running for governor.

During Kelliher's time as Speaker, Democrats have tried unsuccessfully to persuade Pawlenty to support a tax increase.

For her part, Kelliher says she thinks former Sen. Dean Johnson and other DFL members of the Senate deserve most of the credit for resolving the conflict in 2005.