See the forest


When you study Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s policy programs, do you see forest or trees?

Pawlenty’s on-again/off-again commitment to a special legislative session perfectly captures the trees-or-forest dichotomy. The governor never wants us to see his forest, preferring that we only examine trees, particularly those of his choosing.

Opinion: See the forest

Tim Pawlenty is determinedly remaking Minnesota in his own, conservative image. That conservative vision doesn’t enjoy widespread support. Consequently, he wants us to see trees and not the entire forest.

Metaphorically, the forest represents Minnesota’s broadest public policy initiatives and directives, the translation of public need, desire and will into law and spending. Trees represent policy details, budgets, cash-flow, exemptions, extraneous factors, personalities and, in short, the enormous minutiae inherent in policy creation and execution.

In 2003, Pawlenty achieved a political masterstroke. Under the guise of fiscal discipline necessary to tame a $4 billion deficit, he restructured Minnesota’s local government aid system, substantially shifting county, municipal and school district spending back on local property owners. High-income taxpayers were the winners as Pawlenty reduced their obligation; the rest of us lost.

In simple political terms, Tim Pawlenty got pretty much everything he wanted.

As the dust cleared and local units of government slashed services and raised property taxes, reality slowly dawned. Minnesota didn’t just tighten its belt; it changed the way we run government … for the worse.

Pawlenty now occupies a strong, defensive position. He isn’t interested in raising taxes. His policies rule the land. He runs state government.

The lack of a special legislative session so far, despite much bipartisan talk of it, reveals the governor’s commanding redoubt. Minnesota may need more bridge and road funding, capital investment projects and property tax relief, but Pawlenty doesn’t. As I said, the governor got everything he needed in 2003. He’s not keen to surrender his gains.

One-sided negotiation isn’t negotiating. At best, it’s pleading and, as we’ve learned during past legislative sessions and in recent news reports about a special session, pleading with Pawlenty hasn’t worked.

The governor understands, I think, that Minnesotans are catching on. Consequently, he’s stepped up efforts to make us see trees and not the forest. He’s a master of skillful redirection because he never loses sight of his conservative policy priorities.

Creating and passing smart, responsible state policy requires extraordinary political will — more, in fact, than elected leaders have demonstrated. Despite Minnesotans’ strong votes for policy change in the last electoral cycle, little has improved. Absent true will, little more can be expected.

I’m not holding my breath waiting for Gov. Pawlenty to see the error of his ways. He’s doing exactly what he wants, when he wants and how he wants. Minnesotans, including our legislative leaders, need to stop looking at the governor’s trees and start seeing the forest.