SPIN METER: Pawlenty's rosy memory of '05 shutdown

By MARTIGA LOHN | July 13, 2011 | 3:30 AM EDT

FILE - In this July 7, 2011 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, speaks during a town hall meeting at his campaign headquarters in Urbandale, Iowa. Pawlenty is seizing on a state government shutdown in his home state to try to spark a flagging presidential campaign. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is seizing on a state government shutdown in his home state to try to spark a flagging presidential campaign. The Republican is reminding voters that he too presided over a partial state government shutdown, and he even cut a campaign commercial saying he "won" that one.

The truth is more nuanced: Pawlenty was eager to end the 2005 shutdown and agreed to a hefty fee on cigarettes to do so, a blot on his otherwise clean anti-tax record in the eyes of conservatives.

In his 2012 stump speech, Pawlenty holds up the shutdown as evidence he would wage the tough fights in Washington. He wrote an opinion piece making that case Tuesday in Iowa's biggest newspaper. Just before the current Minnesota shutdown started, Pawlenty expressed regret about not letting the state's last government closure go on longer. That shutdown — far less extensive than the current one — ended on the ninth day, when Pawlenty and lawmakers struck a deal.

"I think we would have gotten a better deal had we allowed that to continue for a while and the people of Minnesota would have seen the issues play out a little longer," Pawlenty said on the eve of the current shutdown, which is nearly two weeks old with no end in sight.

In his memoir published early this year, Pawlenty wrote, "To this day, I still wrestle with whether I should've let that shutdown run longer."

Those who were there with Pawlenty six years ago remember things a little differently.

"During the shutdown of '05 he was lamenting as much as the rest of us, and now he's almost wearing it as a badge of courage," said former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, who sat across the bargaining table from Pawlenty that year. "The attitude was, we need to get this fixed and we need to get this fixed now, as opposed to letting government struggle and not work."

Republican state Sen. David Senjem remembered Pawlenty coming to a Senate GOP caucus meeting seeking support for the deal he had made.

"How did he say it — that he didn't like it, that we wouldn't like it, but for the good of the state of Minnesota we needed to move ahead, end this shutdown and that the road home, so to speak, was going to be the health impact fee," Senjem said.

The "health impact fee" — Pawlenty's carefully considered name for the cigarette charge — was the linchpin to ending the shutdown. It brought in enough money to preserve subsidized health care for the working poor, a top goal of Senate Democrats.

It was Pawlenty who brought the proposal into budget negotiations shortly before the mandatory end of the regular legislative session in May that year, outraging conservatives. As a candidate in 2002, Pawlenty had signed the Minnesota Taxpayers League's no-new-taxes pledge, and the head of that group took the cigarette proposal three years later as a betrayal.

"It sure sounds mighty cute to me. Knowing what I know right now it sounds a heck of a lot more like a cigarette tax increase than a health impact fee," said David Strom, the group's head, said at the time.

Pawlenty, though, seemed more focused on avoiding the shutdown and once it started, bringing it to a conclusion.

"It would be very unsettling and unfortunate and inconvenient and problematic to thousands and thousands of Minnesotans and their families," he said a few days before parts of state government closed.

Johnson recalled walking into Pawlenty's office days into the shutdown with a Democratic offer to raise cigarette taxes to help pay for public health programs.

"I remember him, in pencil, crossing out 'cigarette tax' and writing down 'health impact fee.' That was telling," Johnson said in an interview Tuesday. "It was something he did not want to do but at the same time he knew that for the good of the order, for the good of Minnesota, that some kind of revenue needed to occur. That's what broke the stalemate, and a few other things along the way."

Dan McElroy, Pawlenty's chief of staff at the time, didn't dispute Johnson's account.

McElroy said Pawlenty was hard at work at negotiations during the shutdown, trying to hammer out a resolution. McElroy said Pawlenty had valid policy reasons for defining the cigarette charge as a fee because there was already a wholesale cigarette fee in law and a direct tax would have exempted cigarettes sold on Indian reservations, giving casinos a major price advantage. The Minnesota Supreme Court eventually agreed that the charge was properly defined as a fee.

On the day the partial stoppage ended, Pawlenty compared the budget deal to a late teenager: "I'm glad that they're here safe, but I'm mad it's late."

He also acknowledged the political price of the shutdown: "We're all going to take our lumps — as we should — for this."


Associated Press writer Brian Bakst contributed to this report.