MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tim Penny tried to distance himself from the positions of the libertarian Cato Institute, where he once worked.
On the campaign trail, Penny has called for adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare; said the federal government should pay its "fair share" of special education costs, and that light rail is a must-have -- all positions he says reflect his "sensible center" politics.
But when Penny was employed as a senior fellow at the institute, he helped write a federal budget proposal that called Medicare a "Cadillac health plan" that was "unjustifiably generous."
On education, the proposal recommended eliminating funding for everything from HeadStart and school-to-work programs to college work study grants and the Direct Student Loan Program.
The institute, which is based in Washington, D.C., advocates the narrowest possible role for government. It writes a biannual handbook for Congress that covers virtually every aspect of federal government, from defense policy to budget priorities.
In the 1999 handbook, to which Penny contributed, federal transit grants are described as "hopelessly ineffectual," and a list of $197 billion in recommended budget cuts includes elimination of federal crop subsidies (which bring $1.2 billion a year to Minnesota farmers) and Small Business Administration loans ($400 million for Minnesota) along with a host of other federal government programs.
Penny told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis in a recent interview that the list at the end of the chapter that bears his name was "not my list," but that of the Cato Institute.
"I helped Stephen (Moore) write that chapter, but I never viewed this as me suggesting all these specific cuts," he said. "I was advancing Cato's agenda, not mine." Moore is Cato's director of fiscal policy studies.
Moore said that his and Penny's chapter of the handbook was "one of our major projects together" during Penny's time at the institute, and that the two of them spent four months writing it, along with two staff members.
They didn't agree on everything, he noted. "Tim's not as anti-big government as I am," he said, laughing, "but then very few people are.
"For the most part, it was a good collaboration. We saw eye to eye on 80 percent of this stuff, when it came to dealing with budgets."
Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, said Penny has good reasons to maintain some distance from such budgetary recommendations.
Together, he said, the proposals "would have represented a decimation of the federal economic and social role in American society."
The question now, Jacobs said, is "Who is the real Tim Penny? Is he the fiscal firebrand far outside the mainstream, or the responsible, centrist statesman wrestling with intractable problems? This is an issue that goes to the heart of his candidacy."
Penny represented the First Congressional District in southeast Minnesota for 12 years as a Democrat. He said that after leaving Congress in 1994 he need a job.
"I was in the private sector," he said. "I was doing several things on a volunteer basis and this was something for which 1/8Cato 3/8 offered me a retainer. It was just something that kept me in the mix, involved with public policy at the national level."
Penny said Minnesota voters should look to his centerist record in Congress, not his Cato work, to get a glimpse of how he would govern.
"You're not getting a libertarian Cato Institute agenda," he said. "That was not my record in Congress."
His voting record, he said, shows that "I never proposed things like eliminating HeadStart or crop subsidies. I wouldn't do that."
So why did he help prepare a handbook with views antithetical to his own?
"I'm frustrated with myself," he said. "I don't mind stirring the pot a bit, but I looked at this as being helpful to 1/8Cato 3/8 and the particulars were their particulars. I didn't consider it my work."
What should count more, he said, are his years in Congress. "There's going to be nothing terribly radical about what I propose," he said.
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