ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) With no state budgets left to craft himself, Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Thursday proposed asking voters to amend the Minnesota Constitution to cap future government spending.
The outgoing two-term Republican governor, seen as a probable 2012 presidential candidate, said he wants lawmakers to authorize a 2010 ballot measure that would limit spending in a given budget cycle to the revenue the state collected in the previous budget period. Currently, budgets are based on future revenue projections made by state finance officials.
"It is budgeting based on what's in the checkbook rather than what we hope might be in the checkbook in the future," Pawlenty said of his plan.
He downplayed the timing of the proposed amendment. Pawlenty, who leaves office at the end of next year, said the goal of his "Spending Accountability Amendment" is "wholly consistent with my record, my philosophy and my results as governor."
A comparison of the four, two-year budget plans Pawlenty has presented as governor showed that all exceeded the revenue collected during the prior budget period by $1 billion in a couple instances and almost $3 billion in one case.
Because of a budget negotiation breakdown in 2009, Pawlenty resorted to using executive powers to cut spending on his own. That left the state with a smaller budget for 2010-11 than it had for the previous two years, in part because he delayed some payments to schools.
Minnesota governors may propose constitutional amendments, but they don't have much to do with approving them. Proposals that pass both chambers of the Legislature go straight to the ballot, where a simple majority is needed to enshrine them in the constitution.
Democrats handily control the House and the Senate, and Pawlenty's plan drew a skeptical reaction from leaders. Senate leaders said they would hold hearings on the proposal starting in December and invite the governor to make his case.
"At first blush it does seem odd that on your way out the door with a pending $5-7 billion deficit, you would now recommend something you never even proposed to the Legislature," said Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller of Minneapolis.
Senate GOP leader David Senjem of Rochester applauded the proposal, saying it was "both responsive to the concerns of the public and responsible with the hard-earned tax dollars that we are entrusted with."
House Democratic lawmakers were more critical, with Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher of Minneapolis labeling it "a formula for disaster."
"It will cripple our schools and hospitals, not to mention the businesses that rely on a vital economy to survive," said Kelliher, the House speaker.
Pawlenty says a hard cap on spending would force state government to scale back and ease pressure on taxpayers. He said it would be more flexible than constitutional caps in other states and stressed it would include exceptions for public health and safety during national emergencies.
The highest-profile cap is in Colorado, where voters in 1992 wrote tax limits into the constitution. The state's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights limits the amount of taxes the government can take in to a formula based on population growth plus inflation. Anything collected above that limit must refunded to taxpayers. TABOR also requires any tax increases to be approved by voters.
Colorado voters passed another referendum in 2005 to temporarily suspend some of TABOR's restrictions, including allowing the state to keep tax revenue above the TABOR limit.
Brian Bakst can be reached at bbakst(at)ap.org