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State economist loves 'dismal science' work

ST. PAUL -- Though it's been branded the "dismal science," economics brings nothing but joy to the heart of one Minnesota man. Meet Tom Stinson. Economics is his game.

As Minnesota's top economist, Stinson's main job is to forecast the state's economic health two times a year, in November and February. That forecast is then used by the governor and lawmakers to set the state's spending priorities.

This year, Stinson is telling lawmakers to prepare for a $935 million shortfall. Legislators are listening, and frequently quoting Stinson's data to make their case, be they Democrat or Republican.

"There are multiple biennium when nobody cares what I say," said Stinson in an interview.

"But at a time when there's a lot of economic uncertainty, what people want is somebody they can trust to give them more or less the straight explanation as to what's going on. And that's what's going on now," he added.

Stinson has been the state economist since 1987. He also is an associate professor in the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota. The way the state economist position works, Stinson explained, is the state contracts his time from the university.

"The joke is, what they didn't tell me, was that means I'm 12 hours a day, 7 days a week," Stinson said.

And that's pretty much it for jokes. Though his boss, Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson, said Stinson has a good sense of humor, Stinson keeps jokes to a minimum.

One look at Stinson's office and you understand that he's not exaggerating when he says economics always is on his mind. The office near the state Capitol has not a shred of personal memorabilia, and he miraculously retrieves this or that report from an explosion of paperwork blanketing every surface of his office.

A huge white board takes up half of one wall. It's covered with impossibly complex calculations.

Stinson is a tall, slim, 65-year-old, with receding gray hair. He responds thoughtfully to questions, rarely blinking or looking away as he speaks. He doesn't smile too often, but he's definitely not glum. He's just a serious guy.

When fellow economist Art Rolnick of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis was asked to comment on Stinson's personality, Rolnick joked, "What personality? When has anybody accused Tom of having a personality?"

Stinson grew up in Washington state and fell into economics after rejecting the Sputnik-era frenzy to become a scientist or engineer. Stinson said he took a few liberal arts courses and found "economics turned out to be the most interesting and easiest to do."

Rolnick, who regularly advises Stinson as a member of the state's Council of Economic Advisors, praised Stinson as "a strong academic with a penchant for details."

He is "one of the best state economists in the country in his ability to analyze forecasts," Rolnick said. "I don't necessarily agree with the economic ideas, but when Tom brings numbers to the table, it's very thorough. I rarely challenge him on the numbers."

Most years, Stinson's predictions are cautious, some would say, pessimistic. But some years they're rosy.

Pam Wheelock was Stinson's boss when she served as Gov. Jesse Ventura's finance commissioner from 1999 to 2002.

For three years straight, she oversaw a budget surplus which was returned to taxpayers (at one point she said the state had "a boatload of money"). Wheelock called Stinson "one of the Department of Finance's best assets."

"He understands the importance of the information that allows lawmakers to successfully do their job," Wheelock said.

"And he does not immerse himself in political speculation or get caught up in the issues of the day in political settings," she added.

With the state currently facing a nearly $1 billion deficit, Stinson took an uncharacteristic step into the fray this session by telling lawmakers to quickly pass a bill funding state construction projects.

Stinson said he spoke up because of the "dire outlook for the construction trades."

The Legislature and governor listened. The bonding bill was passed midway through the session, earlier than in previous years.

Wheelock said the reason Stinson has the ear of policy makers is because he has a high degree of credibility, and a reputation for being non-partisan.

Retired Rep. Dave Bishop, R-Rochester, who chaired key House budget committees, said he didn't always agree with Stinson but was impressed with Stinson's command of the information.

"Tom was very firm," Bishop said. "He had his answers and would give me the rationale behind them. I always came away better informed. I wasn't changing his positions to mine, he was changing mine to his."

Stinson has been open in recent months voicing his opinion that the country is in a recession. Gov. Tim Pawlenty doesn't agree, and said Stinson was pessimistic.

Stinson prefers the term "cautious." While he's the first to admit that budget forecasting is "the hardest thing" he and his staff produce, he's not planning on giving up the work any time soon.

"It's intellectually stimulating," Stinson said. "It's fun to come to work. Have we ever made a calculation, a mistake that was significant? The answer is, cross your fingers, knock on wood, not yet."