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Governor delivering bad news in person: Every program could be cut
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Ken Bellinger, president of Northland Native American Products, shows Gov. Pawlenty some of the products made by Native Americans that are sold in his store on Franklin Ave. in Mpls. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty ended his first week on the job with a tour of inner-city minority-owned businesses. Pawlenty talked about the importance of education and good jobs. He also asked for suggestions to solve a budget deficit he described as "almost catastrophic," and warned that every Minnesotan will feel the pain of budget cuts.

St. Paul, Minn. — At El Burrito Mercado, a busy market and cafe on St. Paul's West Side, a group of Latino business leaders warmly welcomed Gov. Pawlenty.

Jesse Bethke-Gomez, president of CLUES, Minnesota's largest Latino human service agency, told the governor that the West Side is filled with the entrepreneurial spirit.

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Image Alfred Babington-Johnson

"We're hard working, we believe in America, we believe in advancing community, we believe in family, we're very socially conservative, and we really want to be about contributing to the next generation," he said.

Pawlenty told the enthusiastic crowd that people of color make up the the fastest-growing segment of entrepreneurs. He says Minnesota must celebrate and embrace its growing diversity.

Pawlenty says education is the ticket to success. He has pledged to try to hold K-12 education harmless as he wrestles with the largest deficit in state history, a projected $4.5 billion. But Pawlenty says money isn't the only answer to problems in the state's educational system.

"It's hard to deny the cold, hard statistics that too many students of color are being left behind. And it's not working. And so I hope that you will join me in very directly and very bluntly asking the hard questions about our educational system. And I don't blame the teachers, I don't blame our public educators, they work hard," Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty says he will demand results from the money the state spends on education. At a stop in north Minneapolis, he questioned why fewer than 50 percent of high school seniors graduate.

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Image Gov. Tim Pawlenty

Pawlenty visited Siyeza, a frozen and refrigerated food manufacturing plant. He told African American business leaders he recognizes that inner-city schools face the challenge of educating immigrants and children living in poverty.

He says he doesn't plan to eliminate the extra state money going to Minneapolis and St. Paul because of the high numbers of children in poverty. Minneapolis currently gets around $11,000 a student. Pawlenty says he won't just put more money into the per-pupil formula.

"What is the number at which we can turn this around? Is it $12,000 a student? Is it 13? Is it 14? Is it 15? Because if somebody can reasonably assure me that we've got a number where it reasonably will be assured we'll turn it around, we'll try it. I'll do a demonstration project. But I think we need to know that there's other things going on besides just measuring how much money we're putting on the pile," Pawlenty said.

Some of the business leaders raised concerns about whether Pawlenty would cut money for parks, and for communities of color to try to eliminate racial health disparities. Pawlenty said every program could be cut.

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Image Sandra Vargas

"I don't want to mislead anybody. We are on the verge of a large crisis in the state of Minnesota. And I would be doing a disservice to come up to any group -- and I say this to every group -- to lead you to believe that all these programs are going to continue and they're going to get an increase. That's not going to happen," he said.

Pawlenty says he will keep his campaign promise to balance the budget without raising taxes, and says the state needs to learn to live within its means.

Siyeza's board chairman, Alfred Babington-Johnson, says people are very nervous about what might be in Pawlenty's budget.

"Having said that, I think it is a very constructive thing that the governor did come to the community and allow himself to be touched by our infirmities, if you will, and hopefully that's a beginning of a dialogue that modify some of the pain that might be felt in a community that's already in great pain," Babington-Johnson said.

Pawlenty also stopped at Asian and American Indian-owned businesses. He asks everyone he talks to if they have any ideas to balance the budget, but solutions are hard to come by.

Pawlenty says he'll release his plan next week to solve an immediate $356 million shortfall in the budget that ends in June.

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