The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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October 26, 2010

Gubernatorial candidates make late pitch

MANKATO — Nearly 1,000 area residents braved ferocious winds entering and leaving Tuesday night’s debate between the three major party candidates for governor.

But once inside Minnesota State University’s Bresnan Arena, the audience experienced a surprisingly calm, mostly courteous and largely sober discussion of the choice they would face at the ballot box one week later.

Democrat Mark Dayton, leading every poll in recent weeks, took a few more shots from his opponents than did Republican Tom Emmer and Independence Party nominee Tom Horner. Each focused primarily, however, on pitching himself as the candidate with the best  approach for dealing with a stormy budget forecast and for bringing a sunnier future to Minnesota.

Emmer portrayed the three-man race as presenting voters with only two choices, in reality — a candidate pledged to block tax increases and two who promise to raise them.

“On one side, my colleagues believe we have to raise billions of dollars in new taxes. They argue if we don’t raise billions of dollars in new taxes, we must cut services,” Emmer said in his opening statement, a theme he repeated throughout the 90-minute debate. “I disagree with them completely.”

Horner, despite trailing in all of the polls, also spoke of the race as being a two-way choice: between a traditional Democrat and middle-of-the-road innovator. First, he repeatedly mentioned  the numerous endorsements he’s received from Minnesota newspapers and from three former governors — Republicans Al Quie and Arne Carlson and IP member Jesse Ventura.

“They all said the same thing, that this is one of the most important elections that they can remember,” Horner said. “They came to that conclusion because they really believe that Minnesotans have now rejected the policy of no-new-taxes. ... The question of this election is whether we’re going to swing that political pendulum all the way to the left.”

Dayton, best known for his service in the U.S. Senate, more often referenced his earlier work as economic development commissioner under DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich. Dayton said he learned in that job that Minnesota’s prosperity depends on investing in education and in a highly educated and productive workforce.

“This is an election that’s about the future of Minnesota and it is about your future,” Dayton said before detailing the cutbacks at MSU, at other colleges and at K-12 schools around the state. “... My proposal is to increase taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans, ask them to pay their fair share of taxes to this state, and invest that money in education and other essential services.”

The candidates responded to 10 audience-submitted questions and a half-dozen more from moderators Joe Spear, editor of The Free Press, and Bill Salisbury, a longtime political reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Horner, who proposes raising more revenue by expanding the sales tax to more goods and services, criticized Dayton’s income-tax-based proposal to raise taxes on wealthier Minnesotans, saying small businesses “would be killed by your proposal.”

Dayton noted the high property tax burden businesses face — saying steep cuts in state aid to cities, counties and schools have driven up property taxes in recent years.

“Businesses in Minnesota pay more than four times more in property taxes than they do in any other tax,” Dayton said. “The (Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities) said that Rep. Emmer’s cuts in Local Government Aid would result in higher property taxes.”

Emmer said his top priority is trimming excessive growth in government spending so taxes can be reduced for job-creating businesses.

“Taxes are too high, spending is out of control,” Emmer said. “... Rural Minnesota, like many Minnesotans, feel their government just isn’t listening anymore. It’s time to make sure that government serves the people instead of the people constantly being asked to serve it more of their tax dollars.”  

Speaking to an audience that included hundreds of students, Dayton and Emmer also differed on education funding — both K-12 and higher education. Dayton said it’s crucial for Minnesota’s economic prosperity to restore funding that was reduced during Pawlenty’s reign, citing statistics showing tuition at public colleges in Minnesota is now much higher than in neighboring states and that inflation-adjusted per pupil funding for schools has fallen by $1,300.

“We’re short-changing the future of our state,” Dayton said.

Emmer disputed that K-12 per-pupil funding has been cut and said Dayton hasn’t yet fully explained — even with his proposed tax hikes — how he would erase the projected $6 billion shortfall.

“... I guess you can promise many things, but you can’t follow through on them,” Emmer said.

 Horner said the debate audience learned two things about his opponents — that Emmer would move Minnesota to the right while Dayton would take it left.

“We can’t be a state that moves sideways,” Horner said, pledging that a victory for him would move Minnesota forward.

The event was sponsored by Debate Minnesota.

 

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