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Pawlenty takes his no-taxes message to DFL country
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A small group of protesters complained that Gov. Pawlenty's budget doesn't do enough to take care of the needy. (MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty took his no-new-taxes message to Duluth on Tuesday. He spoke to a neighborhood business group. Protesters outside and business leaders inside expressed reservations about the governor's plan, but Pawlenty stuck to his message.

Duluth, Minn. — West Duluth is a blue-collar neighborhood that's struggled for years as its industrial base has collapsed. It's a neighborhood where a Republican governor and a conservative budget message might not go over well. And they didn't. But everyone was polite.

Gov. Pawlenty talked to a civic group at a meeting hall. Outside, about a dozen people waited for him. Their signs said, "Happy to pay for a better Minnesota."

Charles Gessert blamed Pawlenty for the state's budget problems. Gessert said Pawlenty pushed for lower taxes while he was a leader in the House of Representatives.

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Image Charles Gessert

"During times of surplus, we cut our taxes primarily benefitting the wealthy, and then when times turn bad we cut programs, primarily hurting the poor," he said. "So in effect what we have is the poor paying for the tax cuts of the wealthy."

Gessert and his fellow protesters said their piece to Pawlenty as he went into the building.

In his speech, the governor said the state's budget deficit is nearly three times bigger than it's ever been before. He said his plan doesn't actually cut state spending but merely slows its growth. And he said to protect K-12 education, which he said is 43 percent of the state budget, he had to make cuts everywhere else.

But, he said the deficit actually represents an opportunity. "All these programs are not created equal," he said. "There are some who are more effective than others, and if there is a silver lining -- and I don't mean to suggest the budget crisis is a good thing -- it does require people to re-evaluate and re-prioritize what is our core mission and are we really performing."

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Image Gov. Pawlenty

As an example, Pawlenty offered the Foster Grandparents Program, which matches senior citizens as mentors with low-achieving students. Pawlenty said he's had lots of conversations with people who want to keep the program going. He told them the program "sounds great," but he asked, "Why does it cost money?"

The foster grandparents explained they get paid a small stipend and expenses.

"It's not really a volunteer program," Pawlenty said he told them. "Why do you need to get paid?"

The seniors told him they need the money.

"We should be true about what the agenda is," Pawlenty said. "Is it an at risk youth volunteer program or a senior income supplement program? Both are worthy goals, but let's have truth in advertising about what it is."

"I think we've gotten too far away from taking personal responsibility both for our choices and for our communities."
- Rev. Sharon Osborne

Pawlenty's budget calls for no money for the program.

After his speech, Pawlenty responded to audience questions. One person thanked him for making tough choices. Another asked whether he could compromise with the Democrats on taxes. That one didn't get a specific answer.

After the talk, Sharon Osborne, a Methodist pastor, said she sympathized with the tough position Gov. Pawlenty is in, and she appreciated his honesty.

"And I appreciate his focusing us more on our responsibility in this economy, this day, and our society in general," she said. "I think we've gotten too far away from taking personal responsibility both for our choices and for our communities."

On the other hand, Osborne said as a pastor she works with a lot of people who are hurting because of the economic downturn and the frayed safety net.

"People who are working but can barely afford to live, people who have just lost their jobs after nine years of doing a great job. And working families who can literally not find a place to live and are going through a homeless shelter even though they're working people," she said.

She would have liked Pawlenty to offer "some acknowledgement that there are some places where this is really getting scary and we're not sure how we're going to provide."

Even people who were unhappy with Pawlenty's message were glad he came to town.

While the governor was in Duluth, a House committee reinstated some of the money for the Foster Grandparents Program.

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