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Pawlenty's first year
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The most recent poll on Gov. Pawlenty's job performance conducted by St. Cloud State University found 51 percent of Minnesotans believe Pawlenty is doing a good or excellent job. The numbers are similar to previous polls conducted earlier in the year. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Next week marks the end of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's first year in office. Pawlenty says he accomplished nearly everything he set out to do. The governor kept his campaign pledge to balance the budget without raising state taxes, and pushed through the bulk of his legislative agenda. But during the last half of the year, he took some heat for the effects of his budget, for income he earned from a political ally when he was a candidate and for the release of a level three sex offender since he took office. Pawlenty says he doesn't think the public is paying attention to the criticism.

St. Paul, Minn. — When Tim Pawlenty was sworn in as governor nearly a year ago, he inherited a projected $4.5 billion dollar deficit. He called it the "Incredible Hulk" of budget deficits in his first State of the State address in February, and he repeated his campaign pledge to erase the deficit without raising taxes. "This isn't brain surgery, folks," he said. "The state is simply spending more than it's taking in. And now we need to do what any Minnesota family who faces a financial challenge would do: sit down at the kitchen table and figure it out. Families can't raise taxes to get out of a jam, and we won't either."

Pawlenty also outlined an ambitious legislative agenda that included repealing the Profile of Learning graduation standards, creating tax-free job creation zones in outstate Minnesota and speeding up highway projects.

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Image Criticizes Pawlenty for lost jobs

Less than two weeks after the speech, the governor outlined his plan to balance the budget without a tax increase. Pawlenty proposed cutting nearly every area of state government, raising fees, shifting some spending to future years and spending the state's tobacco endowments.

Democrats said Pawlenty's budget would hurt vulnerable Minnesotans and lead to higher property taxes and tuition. But outnumbered by a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled House, DFL leaders dropped their push for a mix of higher taxes and spending cuts to balance the budget.

Three days before the end of the session, Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger of St. Peter admitted defeat. "We have accepted the reality that this governor will never sign a tax increase this year."

Pawlenty didn't just win the budget debate; he achieved most of his legislative agenda, including new academic standards, a transportation package and his JOBZ tax free zones. He also signed into law several conservative social initiatives he backed when he served in the Legislature, including a 24-hour abortion waiting period and concealed handgun legislation.

Pawlenty's former chief of staff, Charlie Weaver, says 2003 may have been the best session Pawlenty will ever have. He attributes the governor's success to a combination of skill and luck.

"For many of the initiatives, the timing was right. The abortion language, the gun language, the holding down the spending, Profiles ... those were issues that had been simmering for years. In some cases five, six, seven years. And yet they all came together, I think, because you had a strong House majority, strong governor, election results kind of pointed to a more conservative Minnesota," according to Weaver.

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Image The best session he'll have?

Weaver says Pawlenty also used his relationships with legislators and knowledge of the legislative process to get his agenda passed. But while DFL leaders have a fairly collegial working relationship with Pawlenty, they strongly object to the governor's agenda, and spent the rest of the year pointing out the effects of the governor's budget.

House Minority Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul has criticized cuts to local government, health care programs and public safety.

"The Republicans wagered everything to protect their wealthiest supporters. Meanwhile, property taxes are going up, police and fire protection has been cut and Minnesota jobs are being lost," he said.

DFL leaders have also questioned whether budget cuts have led to fewer snowplows on the road. Pawlenty says Democrats continue to rehash the budget debate, and the public isn't buying it. He says his budget hasn't dramatically changed the nature of Minnesota.

"We had to make some difficult decisions, and it impacted people, but this idea that it reverses the state or we've become a Neanderthal state, or somehow, the 'sky is falling' claims that were made during the session and frankly enabled by lots of press coverage to that effect for the most part hasn't come true," Pawlenty says.

The most recent poll on Gov. Pawlenty's job performance conducted by St. Cloud State University found 51 percent of Minnesotans believe Pawlenty is doing a good or excellent job. The numbers are similar to previous polls conducted earlier in the year.

Aside from the budget debate, Pawlenty faced heat on other issues during his first year. He revealed during the summer that he'd been paid $4,500 a month while he was running for governor to do consulting work for a pay-phone company run by a political ally. Democrats alleged that the money was an illegal corporate campaign contribution, but three county attorneys dismissed the charge.

In recent months, Attorney General Mike Hatch and other DFLers have questioned whether budget cuts led to the release of sex offenders. A level three sex offender, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., charged in the alleged kidnapping of college student Dru Sjoden, was released in May. Gov. Pawlenty says the decision to release Rodriguez was made before he took office, and his administration shouldn't be blamed for the disappearance of Dru Sjoden.

"It's a tragedy that is not unlike other incidents that have happened in Minnesota in recent years and over the last decade. And to say that it's unique to our administration is probably not fair. But the bottom line is, what people really want to know is, we've got to find out how this happened, why it happened and fix it," he said.

A day after Rodriguez was arrested, Pawlenty called for reinstating the death penalty in Minnesota. Some political analysts say Pawlenty was adept at rising above criticism during his first year in office.

Lilly Goren, chair of the political science department at the College of St. Catherine, says Pawlenty's image didn't appear to take a beating from the various attacks.

"He put himself forward as sort of the guy next door who's friendly and you like him, and from everything that I can see, he's been able to maintain that image and that sort of public persona even if the policies so far have potentially had some downsides for some voters," according to Goren.

Goren says Pawlenty can be very persuasive when selling his agenda. She says when he took his budget message around the state, many Minnesotans thought his no-tax-increase stance made sense.

DFL leaders say Pawlenty is so good at spinning his message that his rhetoric doesn't tell the whole story. Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger says the governor stressed that the state budget was going up a billion dollars, although about a billion dollars was going for a state takeover of local education funding designed to reduce property taxes.

"In most areas of the budget, despite more people, despite inflation, despite 10, 15 percent health care costs, we spent less money, less money, less real dollars than two years ago. Even though we had more college students and higher costs and higher health care costs. So he managed to reduce the discussion of the pain that his budget caused in a way that I think was somewhat deceptive," says Hottinger.

Hottinger says while the governor touted his JOBZ plan as a way to create jobs, 4,700 state employees lost their jobs in November. He says Pawlenty gained national attention for his push to reimport cheaper prescription drugs from Canada, yet he's scaled back his plan to a Web site with links to Canadian pharmacies; something the Minnesota Senior Federation is already doing.

While Hottinger believes Pawlenty is moving Minnesota in the wrong direction, he says he considers Pawlenty a friend. That statement reflects one of Pawlenty's biggest strengths as a politician; many of his harshest critics say they like him. That doesn't mean they'll stop their criticism in the upcoming year.

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