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Pawlenty proposes constitutional spending limit

State spending steadily has increased in recent years, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Thursday in announcing a proposed constitutional amendment to limit spending to money the state has collected. Don Davis/Minn. State Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants the state constitution to limit spending to revenue the state actually has collected.

Democrats say that is not something even the Republican governor has done in his budget proposals.

Pawlenty on Thursday suggested the constitutional amendment, which would take effect after he leaves office, as a way to limit spending that has grown throughout Minnesota's modern era.

"State government has been on a spending binge," Pawlenty declared.

Democratic legislative leaders sounded skeptical about the proposal, but many promised to give it a full hearing. Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said it is unusual that Pawlenty would offer such a plan "as he goes out the door."

Pawlenty's amendment plan, which would require legislative and public approval, calls for limiting spending during a two-year budget to the amount of revenue the state actually received during the previous two years.

"For 40 years prior to my inauguration as governor, Minnesota government spending increased bv an average of more than 10 percent each year," Pawlenty told a Capitol news conference.

However, that increase has dropped to 2 percent a year since he took office in 2003, he added. He took unilateral action to cut the current two-year budget that began July 1, the first time that a state budget is smaller than the previous one.

Pawlenty said that the current budgeting method relies on guesses about how much money will be available to spend, but his proposal would limit spending to known revenues.

"We need to budget not what we want to spend, but what is brought in the door," he said.

While Pawlenty said the specific concept is new, the idea of keeping spending in check is a hallmark of conservative Republicans. His Thursday announcement to do that came two days before he delivers a speech to a group of Iowa Republicans. The speech widely is seen as his the first Iowa speech in what is expected to become a presidential campaign.

Minnesota reaction to Pawlenty's proposal came quick.

House Property Tax Chairman Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, wondered if Republicans are "willing to address the unfairness in our tax system that asks those most fortunate to pay a smaller percentage than everyone else."

"I invite the governor to explain how he will work to reduce the property tax increases he has placed on Minnesotans since he took office," Marquart said. "Since 2002, property taxes have increased by $3.1 billion, an increase of 86 percent for homeowners alone."

Christina Wessel of the liberal-leaning Minnesota Budget Project said Pawlenty's idea would limit flexibility now enjoyed by legislators and governors.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.