Tim Pawlenty and Walter Mondale Trade Barbs in Minnesota Shutdown Blame Game

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With the Minnesota government shutdown now in its sixth day, the blame game has broken out in full force, playing not just on the state level but on a national one.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, a Democrat, and GOP presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty Tuesday fired the latest shots.

After announcing creation of a bipartisan panel to try to end the stalemate in St. Paul, Mondale told Politico that Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, is to blame for the state's budget problems that have been at the root of the shutdown.

"He left basically the mess that we see, the huge deficits," Mondale, 83, said of Pawlenty, the two-term governor who left office in January. "He shifted these issues into the future so that he wouldn't be around."

Mondale, a native Minnesotan, served under President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981.

Pawlenty, 50, quickly fired back at Mondale, as well as at former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson, who joined Mondale today in unveiling the new committee.

"Walter Mondale ran for president against Ronald Reagan on a platform that called for higher taxes," Pawlenty said in a statement of the 1984 presidential campaign. "Arne Carlson supported John Kerry, Barack Obama and other Democrats. It should surprise no one that they both support more spending and higher taxes in Minnesota.

"We did it the right way for the last eight years, with dramatically lower spending and tax cuts. I commend the Republicans in the Legislature for sticking to their guns, even when politicians of the past call for old-fashioned high tax and spend solutions.

"The last budget on my watch ended last week with a positive balance," he added. "The projected deficit for the upcoming two years is based on large projected spending increases, which I never would have allowed as governor. Minnesota government is shutdown because of Democrats' insistence on Obama-esque solutions to increase spending and raise taxes."

That is only the latest salvo fired by Pawlenty, who has gone on the offensive in recent days in an effort to convince Republican voters that he is capable of solving a budget mess far larger than Minnesota's. As the fight for the GOP presidential nomination heats up, a central issue for the candidates is how they would deal with the country's soaring deficits.

With the state government poised to shut down last Thursday, Pawlenty held a brief news conference to voice his support for the GOP legislators who are at odds with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton on how to solve the state's projected $5 billion deficit for the next two years.

Pawlenty Tuesday released a new television ad in Iowa touting his role in Minnesota's last government shutdown six years ago, a stalemate in 2005 that lasted 10 days.

"Minnesota government shutdown. Why? Because Tim Pawlenty would not accept Democrats' massive tax and spending demands. Result: Pawlenty won," the ad says.

Not so fast, critics warn. The Democratic National Committee responded to the new Pawlenty ad by stating that the GOP candidate did not shut down the government six years ago because of a desire to cut taxes but, rather, because he wanted to raise taxes on cigarettes.

State Shortfall a Potential Problem for Pawlenty?

David Schultz, a professor of public policy at Hamline University in Minnesota, pointed out that Pawlenty deserves some blame for the latest shutdown in the North Star State.

"Pawlenty left the budget deficit problem for Gov. Dayton and the Republicans to address. He left office with the state approximately $5 billion to $6 billion in the hole," Schultz said.

"He came into office with a fairly large deficit and during his eight years in office, he never really solved the structural problems facing Minnesota's deficit. He pretty much just rolled the problem from year to year until he was no longer governor and he did that by rolling obligations into the future and doing a variety of budget shifts. So he left the state fiscally in a pretty bad position, forcing Republicans and Democrats to deal with the current problem.

"Short of talking to the most partisan Tim Pawlenty supporters, you will probably get a consensus that he left the state in a financially very bad position," Schultz continued. "In his last two years in office -–from when he started campaigning for John McCain back in 2008 -– he pretty much ignored the state and his approach to dealing with the state's budget problems seemed to be akin to sort of saying, 'Shove it into the future. Why do I have to worry about it?'"

That record, Schultz believes, could pose a serious problem for Pawlenty as he seeks the GOP nomination.

"I think it potentially hurts him in a couple of ways," he said. "People are going to start to look at where Minnesota is today. Here's a state with a huge budget deficit and he's running on the claim that he can go to Washington and solve the budget problems there. I'm not sure that works for him. I don't think he can really say that he left the state in better fiscal position than what he inherited," Schultz said.

Of more pressing concern for tens of thousands of Minnesotans than the 2012 election is the 2011 shutdown. Now into its sixth day, the deadlock in St. Paul has left 23,000 state workers furloughed, state parks closed and numerous industries that depend on state regulations devastated.

All told, the shutdown, Schultz said, could have increased the state's unemployment rate by a full 1 percent. While Mondale and Carlson Tuesday formed a bipartisan panel to come up with "a third approach" to solving the fiscal shortfall problem, Dayton met with the state's top GOP legislators in the capital, but no agreement was reached.

Dayton and Democrats want to address the red ink mess by raising taxes on the wealthy, which has been rejected by Republicans.

"When Dayton ran for governor he explicitly said that if elected he would deal with the deficit by raising income taxes on the top 2 percent of earners in Minnesota and by spending cuts," Schultz said. "Republicans ran on a platform promising not to increase taxes. That's the bottom line dispute we have: How much to spend and whether we're going to address the deficit with spending cuts alone or with cuts and tax increases."

One issue that could help end the stalemate, Schultz said, is that Dayton is not up for re-election until 2014, while Republican legislators are up for re-election next year.

"Whoever voters are angry at, that's who is in trouble. The Republicans are up for re-election sooner, so they are probably going to feel more heat," he said, warning, however, that "this could drag on for some time."

"I could see it going on for several weeks."