Pawlenty’s broadside against social service spending

Even by the usual standards of political hyperbole, Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s rhetorical assault on the state’s social services on Thursday was unusually stark. In a speech to business interests, the governor appeared to suggest that one of the reasons for the crumbling roads and bridges in Minnesota is the spending on social services, including the state subsidized health care plan.

Pawlenty was speaking to the Burnsville Chamber of Commerce when he suggested cutting social services to put more money into roads and, presumably, bridges.

As quoted in the Star Tribune:

“If we don’t get a handle on this at both the federal and at the state level, and at county, school district and city level, these programs are growing so fast and so out of proportion with the rate of the private economy, that within 15 years it will consume a vast majority of the state’s budget.”

Told by his host that a client with 11 children has tried to adjust his income under $50,000 to qualify for MinnesotaCare, the governor said he, too, has heard of people who try to adjust their income so they can qualify for subsidized health care.

None of which has anything to do with the state’s spending on social services, at least as far as roads, bridges, and MinnesotaCare is concerned.

True, the state has an effective state subsidized health care plan. That’s one of the reasons the state was recently cited as the second-most-healthy state in America. But the political debate that surrounds it often ignores the funding mechanism behind it. Money that could be used for roads and bridges is not going to MinnesotaCare because MinnesotaCare is not funded with taxpayer money; the state’s share is funded by a tax on health care providers. Recipients also pay premiums (the family cited above would pay about $3,000).

When the governor moved for further cutbacks in MinnesotaCare in 2005, the so-called Health Care Access Fund had a $226 million surplus. That fund made an attractive target for the governor who faced a budget deficit.

The Minnesota Medical Association tried to get legislation passed last year to keep the MinnesotaCare funding from being diverted to other projects. It didn’t pass but the MMA says it’s going to try again next month.

In a speech earlier this month, the MMA says, Pawlenty vowed not to use the MinnesotaCare money to balance the budget, and even said he might try to lower the tax that funds MinnesotaCare; an interesting proposal if the cost of providing health care is as burdensome as Thursday’s speech would indicate.

So what’s going on here?

The governor’s speech may be more a warning to legislators than an initiative. This month, two panels — one of which was created by the governor — will release proposals for revamping the entire health care system in Minnesota. They are reportedly leaning toward expanding health care for Minnesotans, but there are sharp divisions on how to accomplish that .

Times change. A year ago, Pawlenty was proposing expanding health care in the state. But that was before the budget deficit went up and a bridge came down.