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Johnson, Walz spar in first governor's debate since primary victories

Gubernatorial candidates Tim Walz for the DFL and Jeff Johnson for the Republican Party addressed a wide range of issues at the first governor's debate Friday, Aug. 17, since their primary victories last Tuesday. The debate convened at Grand View Lodge in Nisswa. Kelly Humphrey / Forum News Service

NISSWA, Minn.—With their interparty rivals eliminated in the primary, Minnesota's remaining gubernatorial candidates can turn their attention to the opposing side.

And so the DFL's Tim Walz and Republican Jeff Johnson are embarking on a series of governor's debates before the looming Nov. 6 election. Their first stop was Friday, Aug. 17, at Grand View Lodge in Nisswa, giving an up-close look at the two men vying for the state's top executive seat.

Answering questions from social media, business groups and the press, Walz and Johnson sparred over a litany of issues—Walz pushed his brand of common-good collectivism and a unified Minnesota, while Johnson extolled the virtues of a state that prizes the individual and personal autonomy over bloated government bureaucracy.

Mining and pipelines

Both candidates said they were in favor of mining operations across the state—citing PolyMet Mining by name—as well as environmental regulations that protect affected areas. Walz did not address if he would be in favor of oil pipelines such as Enbridge Line 3.

Walz said precious metal mining is a springboard for renewable forms of energy—such as fuel cells for solar or wind power—that ultimately benefit other environmental initiatives. The key is to undertake mining in a way that's certified to be safe for neighboring ecosystems.

"How do we strike that balance between economic growth and opportunity while still protecting our environment, it's the struggle that's out there," said Walz, who said these initiatives should work in concert with both economic and environmental measures.

Johnson said he's in favor of both mining and oil pipelines like Enbridge Line 3—citing the latter as a pro-environmental move that protects water-rich ecosystems it crosses.

Minnesota is sitting on top of one of the largest deposits of natural metals in the globe, Johnson said. Minnesotans can ensure safe practices and keep mining jobs in the state.

"We have an opportunity to do something that is environmentally safe, that is environmentally friendly," Johnson said. "Government keeps trying to stop it by throwing new road blocks in the way."

Johnson said he's in favor of stringent environmental laws in the state, but advocated for pushing these initiatives through the bureaucracy when they're evaluated.

Health care

In short, Walz said he's in favor of combining elements of government-centered health care and free-market dynamics—noting there's a key difference between insurance reform and basic health care. Johnson said free market forces would bring premiums and deductibles down if the market was ever allowed to operate competitively and freely.

"I really feel that more government control—whether at the state level through MNsure or at the federal level with the ACA or Obamacare—has not been good," Johnson said. "We need to start creating competition between the insurance companies that are already out there, because there's very little right now."

Walz took aim at Johnson's concept that opening up free markets will lead to reduced prices. A free market only works, he said, if prices and rates are transparent.

Citing the VA system, Medicaid and Medicare, Walz said there's plenty of evidence in terms of centralized health care effectiveness. Health care, he added, is a human right.

Bipartisanship in St. Paul

Speaking in terms of legislative dysfunction in the state Capitol, Walz pointed to his track record in Congress as a coalition-maker and compromiser.

"That isn't always popular with people that are more partisan on one side or another," Walz said. "But, it gets things done."

Both candidates decried a recent wave of giant omnibus bills in the state Legislature that don't give politicians or constituents enough time to properly review legislation. Walz said he would look to ban the anti-constitutional bills, while Johnson said he would veto any multi-topic bill, irrespective if he agrees with its purposes or not.

Citing it as an issue plaguing both side of the aisle, Johnson said it's a matter of leadership—being a governor that's active in every step of the legislative process, instead of in the later stages, as Gov. Mark Dayton has done.

"That's how you get very bad law," Johnson said. "And that's how you get high spending as well. Good government is putting down these lines and not crossing them."

Taxes and business

Compared to neighboring states—where it often takes a few weeks to get permitted to do business in the state—Minnesota may take a year or more, Johnson said, which often means loyal Minnesota companies aren't establishing themselves in the state, let alone out of state job-creators looking at moving here.

"We have the best people in America, we have some of the best infrastructure in America, we want to have the best education system in America," Johnson said. "Just imagine if we were competitive for business, what an economic boom we would see."

Johnson said he would pledge to not add new taxes and actually cut taxes, if elected to office. In turn, Walz said Johnson is eliminating the option to negotiate or work with disparate views by setting absolutes before he's in office.

Walz questioned the notion that higher taxes automatically equal a poorer state for Minnesota residents. It's a matter if people are getting the kind of returns they should see from the relative tax rate, he said.

In general, that would be accomplished by auditing the books in terms of how much people and businesses are paying in taxes, where the money is going, what the returns are on this collective investment and how much money is staying in Minnesota.

Taxes can be restructured to better meet these metrics, Walz said, and tax dollars can then be allocated to other areas of need.

Climate change

Both candidates generally followed their party lines on this issue—Walz, stating climate change is a present and imminent threat, exacerbated by human involvement, per scientific consensus; Johnson, stating climate change is real, but it's a natural occurrence and the extent of human involvement is a matter of debate.

Walz said reducing carbon emissions is a pertinent area of focus for the well-being of the planet and future generations, then went a step further and said that there's money to be made for the state by doubling down on green energy in the public and private sectors.

Johnson characterized himself as a conservationist and said he supports green alternatives, but noted he is not in support of favoring one industry over another. He said measures to scale back carbon emissions and greenhouse gasses would not only prove pointless, but ultimately hurt Minnesotans and their checkbooks.

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