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When Tim Pawlenty announced his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, he touted his record as a two-term governor of Minnesota.
He portrayed himself as a fiscal conservative and said he had been successful at lowering Minnesota’s tax burden.
"For decades before I was elected, governors tried and failed to get Minnesota out of the top 10 highest-taxed states in the country," Pawlenty said. "I actually did it."
To check his claim, we turned to statistics from the Tax Foundation, a pro-business group that has assembled annual studies of state taxes for decades.
The foundation tracks tax burden rankings among the 50 states going back to 1977. The foundation combines state and local tax burdens by counting items defined as taxes by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, a federal statistical agency.
A ranking of 1 means the heaviest tax burden, while 50 means the lowest.
Gov. Jesse Ventura (I)
Gov. Arne Carlson (R)
Gov. Rudy Perpich (D) (second and third terms)
Gov. Al Quie (R)
Gov. Rudy Perpich (D) (first term)
(The 2009 figures are the latest available.)
Now let’s take a closer look at four key questions:
-- Did Pawlenty keep Minnesota out of the top 10? Largely, yes. Under Pawlenty, Minnesota ranked in the top 10 highest-taxed states for only one of the seven years where data is available. It never ranked lower than 17th, but that’s still enough to make this part of Pawlenty’s claim mostly accurate.
-- Was Pawlenty the first governor to push the state out of the top 10? No. Pawlenty did indeed stand firm against tax increases, but his immediate predecessor, third-party Gov. Jesse Ventura, was really the first to cut income and property taxes, said David Schultz, a political scientist at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn.
According to the Tax Foundation data, Minnesota was out of the top 10 for three of the four years Ventura served as governor. Pawlenty largely continued this achievement, and he presided over an even lower ranking for his first three years in office. But Ventura deserves some credit for making it happen initially.
"The major momentum occurred under Ventura," Schultz said.
-- Did Pawlenty achieve the lower ranking on his own? No. As in other states, Minnesota's tax policies are shaped by negotiations between the governor and the legislature. So any credit, or blame, for tax policy should be shared between the governor and the legislature. The Minnesota Senate was controlled by the Democrats during Pawlenty’s entire term. The Minnesota House was Republican-held for the first four years of Pawlenty’s term and Democratic-held for the final four years.
-- Had Minnesota been in the top 10 highest-taxed states for decades? Basically, yes. Prior to Ventura, Minnesota ranked lower than 10th for only three years out of 22, under governors of both parties. And during those three years, Minnesota barely edged out of the top 10, ranking 11th.
We should note that an Associated Press fact check came to a different conclusion than we did. The AP wrote that "Minnesota remains among the 10 worst states in its overall tax climate, according to the Tax Foundation. In its 2011 State Business Tax Climate Index, the anti-tax organization ranks Minnesota 43rd, making it the eighth worst state. The ranking slipped from 41st two years earlier. The index considers corporate, individual, sales, unemployment insurance and property taxes."
However, we see nothing in Pawlenty’s statement to suggest that he was talking only about business taxes. The data we used encompass a broader variety of taxes. When we asked Richard Morrison, a spokesman for the Tax Foundation, to check with his group to see which measurement seemed more appropriate for Pawlenty’s comment, he agreed with us. So we’re sticking with our measurement.
So to recap, we conclude that Pawlenty did have an almost perfect record of keeping Minnesota out of the top 10 list for highest-taxed states. And he’s right that three of his predecessors, in both parties, failed to achieve what he did to any significant degree. But when he says that "for decades before I was elected, governors tried and failed to get Minnesota out of the top 10 highest taxed states in the country," he ignores that Ventura achieved this in the three years before Pawlenty became governor. We rate the statement Half True.
Tim Pawlenty, official presidential campaign announcement speech, May 23, 2011
Tax Foundation, state and local tax burden historical tables, 1977-2009
Tax Foundation, "Tax Foundation State and Local Tax Burden Estimates for 2008: An In-Depth Analysis and Methodological Overview," August 7, 2008
Associated Press, "Fact Check: Not the whole truth in Pawlenty claims," May 23, 2011
Tax Foundation, "2011 State Business Tax Climate Index," October 2010
Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, "Party Control of the Minnesota House of Representatives," 1951-present
Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, "Party Control of the Minnesota Senate," 1951-present
E-mail interview with Richard Morrison, spokesman for the Tax Foundation, May 24, 2011
E-mail interview with David Schultz, political scientist at Hamline University, May 24, 2011
E-mail interview with Alex Conant, spokesman for Tim Pawlenty, May 24, 2011
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