BLOOMINGTON -- Days before he releases the first part of his state budget fix, Gov. Tim Pawlenty assured business leaders Wednesday night that he won't buckle to pressure to consider tax hikes along the way.
Pawlenty's address to a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce dinner didn't provide any precise hints at how he will clear away a $4.56 billion deficit. By Monday, he intends to unveil his plan to solve the roughly $350 million shortfall for the remaining six months of this fiscal year.
While stressing that difficult decisions lie ahead, the Republican governor told the crowd that dire predictions of Minnesota going the way of Mississippi or Arkansas won't materialize.
"A little bit of belt-tightening will not be the end of the world," he said.
Even if the entire deficit is erased by spending cuts, Pawlenty said Minnesota's budget will still exceed Wisconsin's.
Later, in a panel discussion among the legislative leaders, Rep. Matt Entenza, the top House Democrat, found fault with Pawlenty's claim. He said Wisconsin may have a smaller state budget, but it has higher local property taxes.
"If we're going to cut certain sorts of spending, I want to make sure we aren't just jacking up property taxes," said Entenza, of St. Paul.
The chamber dinner was a who's-who of political power brokers, attended by more than 1,000 business leaders, state legislators, and lobbyists for a range of causes. Pawlenty found a friendly reception among an audience that largely embraced his views, especially the resistance to tax increases.
"It's not about being pro-business, pro-fat cat, pro rich people," Pawlenty said, "It's about being pro-jobs."
He noted that Minnesota has lost 38,000 manufacturing jobs in the last four years, nearly 80 percent of the jobs it gained during the boom times of the 1990s. Raising taxes, the governor said, will cause Minnesota to bleed more jobs to states like South Dakota, which is known for its inviting business climate.
"I can't cut taxes in the near-term, because the budget situation won't tolerate it, but we have to start with the premise that we can't make it worse," Pawlenty said.
The tax climate matters a lot to border towns like Worthington, which is competing with South Dakota and Iowa for business. Linda Chambers, a member of the southwestern city's chamber of commerce, said Pawlenty is on the mark.
"Without jobs, we aren't going to have tax dollars," she said.
Even natural political rivals like state Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said Pawlenty made a strong case with his jobs argument.
"He's going to get buy-in from people all along the political spectrum," Murphy said.
Pawlenty's finance commissioner, Dan McElroy, said next week's proposal will overshoot the projected $350 million problem by $100 million or more, to cushion against further blows the economy could sustain before June.
"We have to leave something on the bottom line for a little security," McElroy said. "It would be irresponsible not to."
House Speaker Steve Sviggum said he expects to move quickly on Pawlenty's plan, and possibly hold a vote within two weeks.
Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger said Senate Democrats will have their own plan ready to go in a week and a half.
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