Should We Believe What Pawlenty Says About His Record?

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The former Minnesota governor paints a flattering self-portrait

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Tim Pawlenty, truth teller or truth seller?

The newly official GOP presidential candidate said the word "truth'' no less than 16 times in his much-ballyhooed Monday announcement speech in Iowa titled "A Time for Truth.''

Pawlenty's self-portrait of a tough-love, eat-your-vegetables candidate looks like an effort to contrast himself with President Obama, whom he characterizes as a typical style-over-substance politician, as well as Republican rivals such as Mitt Romney, who has tried to finesse his health care record to appease conservatives, and Rep. Michele Bachmann, a fellow Minnesotan who has been guilty of rhetorical overreach more than once.

"Someone has to finally stand up and level with the American people,'' Pawlenty said at a rally in Des Moines. "Someone has to lead.... Leadership in a time of crisis isn't about telling people what you think they want to hear; it's about telling the truth.''

But even impartial observers of Pawlenty's record as Minnesota governor say that he exaggerates his fiscal accomplishments and glosses over the $5 billion deficit he left his successor, one of the biggest shortfalls in the country.

Pawlenty boasted on Monday of slashing state spending, and it's true that he rejected tax and spending increases and went so far as to use a state law that allows the governor to make unilateral, "unallotment" cuts -- without the Legislature's approval -- in certain fiscal emergencies.

But it's also true that in his last year in office, the governor balanced the books by using $2.3 billion in federal stimulus money and what the nonpartisan Minnesota Taxpayers Association called "budgetary duct tape" -- shifting $1.4 billion in school-aid payments; delaying $152 million in sales and corporate income-tax refunds; raiding $124 million from state funds meant for other purposes; and resorting to other accounting tricks.

Former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson on Monday criticized Pawlenty for those accounting shifts and blamed him for big local property-tax hikes by school districts and local governments, which are under pressure to cover rising costs when the state doesn't increase income and sales taxes.

"I come from the more traditional wing of the Republican Party and truly believe in fiscal discipline and that the office of the presidency should go to our nation's best and brightest and not its most ambitious,'' Carlson wrote on his blog on Monday.

Ken Martin, chairman of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, accused Pawlenty of "lying about his record" and said that he "bankrupted the future of the state." Only five states -- California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, and Texas -- are facing gaps bigger than Minnesota's as a share of their overall budgets, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.

The Pawlenty campaign has cautioned that the $5 billion deficit is only an estimate, based on a larger-than-expected increase in state spending in the coming year and the state's failure to make the "unallotment" cuts permanent. The bigger problem: escalating health care costs for the elderly and the poor, which Pawlenty had limited control over without the cooperation of a Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Said Pawlenty on Monday: "If if we could move Minnesota in a common-sense, conservative direction, we can do it anywhere--even in Washington, D.C."

Pawlenty also promised in his speech that during his trip to Florida on Tuesday, he wouldn't sugarcoat the problems facing Social Security and Medicare. Although he has praised the austerity measures proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Pawlenty has yet to endorse them or offer his own plan.

Image credit: John Gress/Reuters

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Beth Reinhard is a political correspondent for National Journal.

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