PoliGraph: Pawlenty spending claim lacks context

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This is the fourth in a series of fact checks this week reviewing former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s book – Courage to Stand – as he tours the nation promoting it and exploring the possibility of a run for president.

Pawlenty frequently says that he drove down state spending during his administration.

Here’s what he wrote about the issue on page 183 of his book:

“The average two-year increase in Minnesota state spending from 1960, the year I was born, until I became Governor was about 21 percent. We brought that down dramatically to an average of 1.7 percent per year during my time as Governor. And for the first time in the 150-year history of Minnesota, we reduced state spending in real terms.”

At first blush, his claim checks out. But a deeper look reveals Pawlenty is being selective with the numbers and is omitting important context and adjustments.

The Evidence

Minnesota writes new budgets every two years, so spending can be measured in one- and-two year cycles.

Yes, according to Minnesota Management and Budget, the average two-year spending increase between 1960 and 2003, the year Pawlenty took office, was indeed roughly 21 percent.

However, the numbers used to figure the rate of increase were not adjusted for inflation or population growth. Accounting for these variables would show flatter state spending over time. As a result, Pawlenty’s performance looks stellar.

Moreover, Pawlenty compared his one-year average rate of spending increase (1.7 percent) with the unadjusted two-year average, which inflates the gap between spending under his administration and his predecessors’. The state’s unadjusted one-year average is 10 percent. (Inflation-adjusted data are not available.)

Furthermore, Pawlenty’s claim doesn’t reveal two favorable events in the most recent budget cycle: roughly $500 million in federal dollars for K-12 education that effectively lowered state spending in fiscal years 2010-2011 and the delay of $1.9 billion in payments to schools to future budget cycles.

The final part of Pawlenty’s claim, that for the “first time in the 150-year history of Minnesota, we reduced state spending,” is even harder to pin down, in large part because the Legislature and budget department don’t readily have data going back that far. And even if the numbers were available, the General Fund of 1860 would be too different from the General Fund of 2011 to compare accurately.

Nevertheless, it appears that Pawlenty is being selective with the numbers on this point, as well. According to the budget department, it’s a fact that the 2010-2011 two-year budget cycle is the only time since 1960 that the state decreased spending in terms of dollars. But on an annual basis, general fund spending declined in 1983, 1986, and 2004 as well, according to the same document.

The Verdict

The average state spending increase was indeed smaller during Pawlenty’s administration.

However, Pawlenty’s claim is misleading because he mixes a two-year average with a one-year average to make his spending restraint look stronger than it was. And when comparing the recent record with past decades he also doesn’t account for inflation and population growth, federal stimulus money and an accounting shift. Finally, the governor cites 150 years of history with no source for where he got his information.


Minnesota Management and Budget, Historical Expenditures: General and All Funds, last updated Dec. 2, 2010, accessed Jan. 25, 2010

Minnesota 2020, State of the State Fact Check, by Jeff Van Wychen, Feb. 11, 2010

Minnesota Budget Bites, Governor’s Budget Spares K-12 But Cost Shifts Remain, by Scott Russell, Feb. 22, 2010

Interview Bill Marx, Chief Financial Analyst, Minnesota House of Representatives, Jan. 26, 2010

Interview, Jay Kiedrowski, Senior Fellow, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Jan. 25, 2010

Interview John Pollard, spokesman, Minnesota Management and Budget, Jan 26, 2010


The Humphrey School

  • Eric Ferguson

    Since we don’t know where he gets his numbers to start with, and he leaves out huge factors, it seems this analysis is a detailed way of saying he’s just making it up. Well, he has his talking point, so once again facts don’t matter. That’s maybe the saddest thing about modern conservatism: facts don’t matter.

  • T. Dohmen

    It is indeed sad that facts don’t matter in modern conservatism. Sadder yet is the tendency of the right to hijack the concepts of honor and personal responsibility when misleading and lying is central to the way they win votes and public favor. I only hope that people realize what a glib, dishonest man Tim Pawlenty is.

  • John Crampton

    Pawlenty is using faith-based budgeting just like he and sidekick Molnau used faith-based bridge inspections. Pawlenty was the worst governor this state ever had. His only focus was making sure that the richest 2%ers kept their tax cuts so they paid less than the working stiffs.