Wednesday, June 15, 2005

COLUMN -- Pawlenty is spending political capital like a drunken sailor

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:33 AM |  

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

[Note: Headlines are written by Pioneer Press editors. I thought this one a little over-the-top as representation of the opinion in the column.]

It's not been a great couple of weeks for Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

First, he made a surprising overture across the aisle. He backed off his "no new taxes" pledge and proposes a 75-cents-a-pack "health impact fee" on cigarettes to come up with about $380 million of new revenue for public education.

His proposal received a storm of criticism, not from the DFL, but from within Republican ranks. Not only did Pawlenty back off his pledge, said conservative true believers, his "tax" and "fee" distinction failed the smell test.

Coupled with his revenue proposal, the governor demanded that the Legislature pass at least two of four specific proposals — initiative and referendum, meaningful school choice, a ban on school-year teacher strikes and a tribal/racino partnership.

Anybody heard much about those proposals lately?

Absent any apparent plan to move the governor's initiatives forward, Democrats stole the show. The momentum shifted to their counterproposal for a 55-cents-a-pack cigarette tax, a new 9.9 percent income tax rate and closing corporate tax "loopholes" by repealing business incentives intentionally implemented during the Perpich administration.

Then, once again last weekend it was GOP opposition that burned the governor. The Republican Central Committee ousted Pawlenty-endorsed Ron Eibensteiner as party chairman. Conservative blogs read the grass-roots ouster as everything from an outright disaster to an unfortunate mistake and party betrayal of loyalty to the governor.

That would be a misreading of the situation.

Pawlenty has been spending political capital the way the state spends tax dollars — with good intentions on dubious initiatives. The governor's national aspirations and pre-election itch to "do something" have replaced the bedrock principle that put him in office — balancing the state budget and forcing real spending reform.

Instead, the governor sought more revenue to avoid unpopular spending reforms — first through expanded casino gambling and then via the cigarette tax. Instead of spending reforms, he's signed onto an increase in the minimum wage, the Northstar Line, a 20 percent ethanol mandate and flip-flopped on the stadium issue.

He has consistently underestimated the opposition within his own ranks and overestimated his strength as the de facto conservative candidate in 2006.

"Where else you gonna go?" is a political attitude that confuses obedience with loyalty and ultimatum with strategy. It assumes political capital as inexhaustible as the state's appetite for new tax revenue. And it blinds one to the reality that a magnanimous political gesture will inevitably be responded to with political self-interest.

That pretty much sums up where the governor finds himself today. Pawlenty has been flirting at the public perception punch bowl long enough, and it's time to dance with his date. It's time for him to realign with the people and the principles that got him elected. (Whatever happened to "Minnesota doesn't have a revenue problem; it has a spending problem"?)

Pawlenty has already shown signs of awakened leadership. In response to the DFL counterproposal to his cigarette tax, he said, "We were hopeful that this would be a significant response, but it wasn't. So we're kind of back to the drawing board."

The drawing board is not a bad place to be. As a result of holding the line on taxes, Minnesota tax revenues are up. With nearly a 60 percent majority, the House already passed a tax bill that holds the line on new taxes. For better or worse, the bonding bill is safely put away.

The governor made the magnanimous gesture. He put his political future on the line for the good of Minnesota by backing off his no new taxes pledge to balance the budget and fund education. The DFL rejected his offer with the indefensible ploy of playing education off against increased taxes.

Politics is about party interest, which to Democrats means sticking it to the governor even at the expense of people they purport to represent. Their constituency, however, does not tolerate betrayal anymore than conservatives do. Just ask low-income urban parents who watched Democrats spike school choice initiatives.

It's time for Pawlenty to extend his reach past politicians and into the real world, where elections are won and lost. Forget ultimatums. Don't leave the agenda up to the opposition. Invest political capital in principled issues, work a strategy and loyalty follows.

The next couple of weeks could be a lot better than the previous few.