DULUTH, Minn. - It might seem hard, at first glance, for Minnesota's three major candidates for governor to stand out from the pack: All three have graying hair, all three wear dark suits and all three are white men over 50.
But Republican Tom Emmer, DFLer Mark Dayton and Independence Party candidate Tom Horner did their best Tuesday morning to pull their personalities and policy above the fray at a debate sponsored by the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce.
The state's looming fiscal crisis for 20011-2012 took center stage at the Duluth Playhouse, with fiscal analysts predicting at least a $6 billion shortfall for a $38 billion budget if cuts in projected spending, or increased revenues and taxes, are not approved by the next governor and Legislature.
The candidates spent much of their stump time pushing their plans, and criticizing their opponent's plans, to solve the shortfall.
Horner is banking on a combination of spending cuts and expanding the state sales tax to clothing and some services. Dayton is calling for restoring higher income tax rates for the wealthiest 20 percent of Minnesotans, those earning more than $152,000 per couple. Those rates were cut a decade ago. Emmer said he would cut taxes and reduce spending where possible to make sure the state lives within its means.
All three also said creating jobs, or growing the economy, is the biggest, most critical issue facing the state, noting more workers earning paychecks and paying taxes not only helps families but also keeps money flowing to the state for public services.
Emmer said the best way to grow jobs is for government to get out of the way.
"I've never seen government invest our money better than we can," Emmer said. "Government's role is to get out of the way. ... More government is actually suppressing the entrepreneurial spirit."
But Horner and Dayton countered that there should be a partnership between government and business, and that government must increase its effort to bolster roads, schools, public safety and other basic services so Minnesota regains a competitive advantage.
"We need a strong talent pool," Horner said, noting the state should increase spending in some areas of education. "We need some smart public sector investment."
Dayton agreed, saying it has been public investment in Minnesota, including University of Minnesota research that developed taconite processing, which has made Minnesota great. Dayton also highlighted the 1985 deal that created what is now the New Page paper mill in West Duluth as an example of public-private efforts.
Horner spent much of the 90-minuts trying to distinguish himself as a viable, third-party candidate, repeatedly noting that partisan DFL-Republican bickering has caused gridlock in St. Paul.
"It's not about fighting over who's right, it's about fighting over what's right," Horner said to cheers. "I'm the one who can bring both sides together and get something done."
Emmer cited a long, expensive environmental review process for the proposed PolyMet copper mine near Hoyt Lakes, saying it has taken too long. Horner agreed.
All three candidates were asked what their top three actions would be to spur private sector job creation:
- Emmer said he would lower taxes; streamline the state's regulatory process and eliminate unnecessary regulation and push more government duties to the local level.
- Horner said he would push tax reform "not just cutting taxes"; streamline the permitting process; and invest in government-funded infrastructure, including roads, high-speed Internet and education.
- Dayton said he'd favor more efficient regulatory review; reducing property taxes after they've increased dramatically in recent years; and eliminating the sales tax on capital investments by businesses.
The debate had its lighter moments, with Dayton trying to credit his hockey playing days for his penchant for scrapping with Emmer, but Emmer countering that Dayton was just "a goalie, and that's different. I'm the only one here who can skate."
All three candidates said they would attend the Duluth Days lobbying event held during legislative sessions, with Dayton saying he'd host it at the governor's mansion and Horner saying he'd even ride on the bus from Duluth to St. Paul.
It was the seventh major debate for the candidates, the first in Northeastern Minnesota, with eight weeks before the Nov. 2 general election.
John Myers is a reporter at the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.