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Tim Pawlenty's Budget Busting Legacy

He's running for president. His state's running on empty.

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

The duct-tape line is particularly apropos because it's a phrase Pawlenty himself is fond of using to describe President Obama's policies. In his 2011 book, Courage to Stand, he constructs an elaborate metaphor involving the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), an actual tarp, a picnic blanket, and duct tape to describe the financial crisis. "When the rain started to fall on America's picnic, Washington hung up a big old plastic tarp to protect us from the deluge," he wrote. "The problem was, the rain just kept coming. The tarp started sagging in the middle and filling up with water. Poke it with a broom handle all you want, try to drain some of that water off the sides, but the blanket below is getting awfully wet in the meantime. Everyone can see the tarp's starting to tear at the seams, and we've run out of duct tape."

Beyond shifting funds around, Pawlenty's budget shell games relied on other tricks. For instance, Pawlenty's wonks used inflation-adjusted figures to calculate the government's projected revenues (to derive a higher figure), but they declined to use inflation projections to calculate future expenditures (which would also, of course, increase with inflation). The result was meaningless paper surpluses.

Pawlenty has blamed the state's present fiscal woes on a national economy gone south, noting that when it comes to deficits, Minnesota's hardly an outlier—North Dakota was the only state without one this year. He also says the state budget office's projected deficit is built on the unrealistic assumption that spending would necessarily increase by 27 percent over the next two years. "If they had just spent single-digit increases, not 27 percent, they wouldn't even have a deficit," he said in April. "It's a complete fiction. It is a government out of control on autopilot." (The non-partisan fact-checking site PolitiFact, though, has affirmed the accuracy of the 27-percent figure.)

Dayton and Republican leaders finished the five-month regular legislative session without reaching an agreement on how to balance the state's budget as required by law, and they must reach a deal before Thursday at midnight to avert a shutdown. As Minnesota Public Radio has reported, the two sides are about $1.8 billion apart, with most of the debate centering on how much to cut from the state's health and human services programs.

Carlson, who served as Minnesota's chief executive from 1991 to 1999, marvels at how Pawlenty has distanced himself from the state's budget crisis. "He turns around and says, 'Gee, I have nothing to do with the current deficit.' Well, that's interesting!" Carlson says. "You can't say the new governor created the deficit. You can't say the new legislature created the deficit. If the outgoing governor didn't create the deficit, my heavens, who did? We should have a search party to find out who did it!"

Carlson endorsed President Obama in 2008, in part because he was uncomfortable with the attacks leveled by fellow Minnesotan Rep. Bachmann (who suggested, among other things, that the Democratic nominee harbored "anti-American" views). He hasn't suddenly become a liberal, though. Carlson says he doesn't know whom he'll support in 2012—former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman intrigues him—and he scolds the president for failing to adopt the proposal offered by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles to knock down the long-term budget deficit. "He has not come up with a plan that is serious," he says of Obama.

But Carlson saves his harshest words for his fellow Republican. "I can't find anything very conservative about that; I can't find anything very liberal about that," he says of Pawlenty's move to shift the tax burden to local authorities. "It's just another way of trying to fool the public, and that's what Gov. Pawlenty did."

Pawlenty, who's currently floundering in the polls in Iowa and trailing even Obama-appointee Huntsman in New Hampshire, is asking voters to take a look at his home state to see what he accomplished. But starting tomorrow, he may not like what they'll find—big signs, from Moorhead to Minneapolis, with a simple message: "Sorry, we're closed."

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