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House 4A DFL primary: Thorson says he would 'fuel the engine'

Democratic House 4A candidate Mark Thorson of Bemidji talks about the need to "fuel the engine" to get the economy going during a one-candidate forum Thursday night at the American Indian Resource Center. He faces Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, in the Aug. 10 DFL primary. Pioneer Photo/ Brad Swenson

To help solve a $5 billion state budget deficit, DFL candidate Mark Thorson would "fuel the engine" with investments that pay back, he said Thursday night.

But he doesn't yet know where the infusion of money would come from, other than suggesting borrowing it and having it paid back by the return on investment.

Thorson, a Fergus Falls sand and gravel contractor who lives in his hometown Bemidji, held a 90-minute solo "forum" with about 50 people curious about his campaign. He faces Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, in the Aug. 10 DFL primary.

He didn't mention Persell by name at all during the forum, where he led with an opening statement and answered questions from the group, moderated by Beltrami County Commissioner Jim Lucachick. He did refer once to "the big blue machine," Persell's campaign color.

He only mentioned the Republican candidate, Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann, once in referring to Lehmann's position in the Bemidji Jaycees Water Carnival Parade in relation to one of his daughters/

Yet his advertising has sought to connect Lehmann to the Bemidji Regional Event Center, and his opposition to its construction.

But Thorson said Thursday night his campaign isn't against the BREC, but to point out the missed budget priorities when the federal and state governments are broke and the city of Bemidji close to it, yet there is money to build a $50 million event center.

"With the financial ill-health of the state, to me, it's just a poster child" of financial missed priorities, he said. "I'm not against the event center. I'm not against its concept, I'm not against the Beavers ... it is the lack of financial discipline that is taking place."

How to fund future operations and maintenance will be the challenge, he said. "We are broke. ... Our state is broke and our city is going into risk."

At some point, he said, he will move forward "and stand with the event center."

Thorson said he has a campaign pledge "to make this campaign more interesting. ... I'm not a politician. I'm clearly not a politician. I'm a citizen. Among many things, I'm a business owner ... I did not come into this race because of the event center, I got into this race because of Minnesota's struggling financial health."

Thorson said he's "not here to whack things but to make things work."

Politics have become so partisan that Democrats and Republicans won't work together for a common-good solution, he said.

He blamed that, in part, on the "New Republicans," which he defined as people lured by emotion from right-wing radio commentators and FOX News. He also blasted the Tea Party followers, saying that as a liberal they'd call him a socialist but then fail to recognize the military as the most socialist society America has.

"They live on the toxicity of FOX News and radio," Thorson said. "They talk among themselves, they stay with themselves, when an election doesn't turn out like they thought it would ... they just talk to each other and repeat the same stuff over and over."

He said conservation commentators "play on emotion and keep that drum beat going."

Beltrami County Tea Party Chairman Dan Hess rose to challenge Thorson, saying he and the media are wrongly portraying citizens who are Tea Party followers.

"What you just said is so far removed from the truth," Hess said, adding that Thorson's name has never come up at Tea Party meetings. "We have over 400 people ... that want smaller government and to try to get back to where we were."

Hess said he agrees with Thorson that government is taking up 15 percent of gross national product, which is too much, but asks what happens when government indebtedness takes 100 percent of GNP.

Thorson's impression of the Tea Party is wrong, Hess said, indicating that the party has worked with Warriors for Justice, a Democratic offshoot trying to gain the ballot as its own party after failing to win DFL endorsement in two local legislative races.

"They were shunned by the other party," Hess said. He alluded that Thorson was denigrating the half of Democrats who consider themselves conservative Democrats.

"You're insulting half of your constituents," Hess said, "and you're not open to any particular thoughts."

Thorson said he wasn't against the Tea Party, but that it was a "loosely federated" group with no central direction. He accused the Tea Party of being closed-minded.

"We are open to everybody," Hess said.

"I'm not prejudiced against Tea Party people," Thorson said. "I'm responding to a question about Tea Party observations."

Several questioners tried to pin Thorson down on what he meant by "fueling the engine." He refused to answer a question about raising state income taxes, saying it depends on deductions and exemptions to that tax.

"You can put a percent of what it's going to be in aggregate, but deductions change," he said. "It's got to be raising the entire living organism."

Asked about privatizing government services, Thorson said government can't be privatized as government is government. But government can be shrunk.

What is lacking is a plan for government, he said. Government leaders need to think 20, 30 years into the future to shape government to meet the services people need.

The same goes with the budget, he said, which needs more money but in targeted investments that return money to pay off that investment. Current politicians want jobs, and are willing to through money at it but there is no pan, he said.

"You've got to solve the problem before pushing buttons," said of a master plan.

Financial troubleshooting is needed and is something Thorson wants to provide as a legislator, he said.

Monte Hammitt said the Legislature this session balanced the budget but on the backs of children, as payments to schools were deferred. Candidates "need to come up with a plan, not just a bunch of words."

"You have to make your expenditures work," Thorson said. "Republicans cut spending but never use that savings for investment. ... When the engine starts running out of fuel, like we're doing now, people start talking. As far as putting money into the system, Republicans will even be on board, if you show the money you're putting in will give us a return on investment, will give a way to function more efficiently."

Right now, legislators are asking for money for jobs with no plan for those jobs, which keeps building deficits.

To find that infusion of cash for the engine, Thorson would borrow the money by bonding.

"We've got to get the economic engine pumping and running," he said. "If we borrow money, let's build something. ... But you just can't throw money at the system. It has to be well-thought-out, planned. I don't see a jobs bill being successful in one or two years. You can't put it together that quickly."

On a natural resources question, Sue Safstrom asked about balancing priorities between those who want to enjoy the outdoors without motorized vehicles or shooting ranges versus those who enjoy those activities.

Thorson said there has to be room for both activities, and would not seek to ban ATV use in areas adapted to their use. "There's a lot of room out there for folks to be able to use ATVs. There is a place."

Thorson said he opposes state-run casinos, and does not favor opening up the compacts the state has with the tribes on gaming.