Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
On the federal economic stimulus, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was able to finesse his two roles as a state executive and as an aspiring Republican presidential candidate. But, the governor has a brand new challenge that seems likely to force him to walk an even narrower tightrope: a stimulus plan coming out of the Minnesota legislature.
Pawlenty took an interesting approach to the federal stimulus. He, like most Republicans, criticized the concept. Unlike other G.O.P. governors, though, he didn't go through the show of pretending to reject the money.
You might call Pawlenty's position on the stimulus pragmatic. The case he made is that Minnesotans already pay the federal government more in taxes than they receive in benefits. Even if his state had rejected the stimulus money, Minnesotans still would be as responsible for paying off the additional national debt as anyone else. So, he reasoned, rather than become even more of a "donor state," Minnesota might as well take the money and try to use it as effectively as possible.
In this way, Pawlenty was able to avoid the controversy back home that would have come from rejecting the money, but didn't diverge too seriously from the conservative base of his party. Most of the governors who blustered about rejecting stimulus money, such as Sarah Palin in Alaska, ended up taking most of it anyway. Pawlenty maintained a consistent position.
Now, though, the Minnesota legislature is threatening that consistency. Here's the plan, as reported by the Pioneer Press:
House Capital Investment Committee Chair Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said she hopes to pass the bonding bill in February, less than a month after the 2010 Legislature convenes.
She plans to propose a bill in the $1 billion range that would finance school and college projects, roads, bridges, and sewer and water systems. Much of the money would go for shovel- or paint-ready repair and remodeling projects that can begin and be completed quickly, she said.
So, the Democrats who control the Minnesota legislature are looking at borrowing money to pay for shovel-ready infrastructure projects as a means of creating jobs and stimulating the economy. Doesn't that sound a lot like what the federal government did earlier this year?
There are a lot of reasons that a governor, even a relatively conservative governor such as Pawlenty, might want to support this sort of legislation. The timing is good: Interest rates are low and construction costs are down. Issuing bonds for the types of projects Democrats envision is fairly routine. Supporting the bill allows Pawlenty to appear responsive to the unemployment situation.
Still, the framing of the infrastructure bonds as stimulus poses problems for Pawlenty. If he supports a state-level stimulus, why didn't he support the federal stimulus? Wouldn't he be embracing the concept of government borrowing and spending as an economic salve?
There are plenty of answers Pawlenty might give to those questions (the bulk of the federal stimulus, after all, went to non-infrastructure programs such as Medicaid, education and unemployment benefits), but it's not clear that any of them would satisfy the conservative activists who will help determine the Republican Party's presidential nominee.
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