Sunday, September 5, 2010

The MPR State Fair Debate Recap

On Friday MPR hosted a gubernatorial debate with Mark Dayton, Tom Emmer, and Tom Horner. Let me just say first of all, that if we could only start taxing not answering questions Minnesota would be looking at a budget surplus.

I attended the debate, but don't feel like I gained a lot of new information. I just listened to the radio broadcast again to make sure I didn't miss anything, but still feel like it was a bit of a chaotic debate that didn't do much to provide voters with more specifics. (If you'd like to listen to the debate yourself, you can do so here.) I was surprised at the number of very vocal Tom Emmer supporters in the crowd, complete with "Emmer for Governor" hockey jerseys. (That apparently will set you back $200 each.) They had held an anti-tax rally at the Fair that morning prior to the debate and moved to Carousel Park for the 11am debate. I wonder if that is part of the reason why Tom Emmer seemed to try to tie every answer he gave back to taxes or smaller government.

This wasn't a great debate. I usually like Gary Eichten and think he does a good job with interviews. However, as the moderator, the candidates walked all over him. They took jabs at each other, got way off topic, avoided answering certain questions, and just asked each other questions rather than further discussing the topics on hand.

In case anyone is interested or you missed it, let me just give you a quick rundown of the debate and my impressions.

The Deficit
It started off with a discussion of Minnesota's budget deficit. Emmer quickly answered that we don't have a deficit. He cited that the state spent $30B and coming revenues are expected to be $3B  higher. His numbers here are not wrong. That being said, they are quite misleading. I won't go into all the specifics here. Lori Sturdevant did a great break down of this issue in last week's Sunday Star Tribune that would highly encourage you to read. Basically, the state did spend around $30B, but due to one time discounts in play they actually bought around $34B worth of services. Horner pointed this out and reminded Emmer that he's not accounting for the money that the state borrowed that will need to be paid back. From there it simply became an argument in which Dayton and Horner both defended the need for new revenues and Emmer saying that wasn't the answer and his plan would work for all Minnesotans. The only problem is that the Emmer campaign hasn't released a specific plan. Horner was quick to remind him of that and at that point, less than 10 minutes into the debate, it digressed into bickering between the two that included some wild accusations about taxing garage sales and kids who mow lawns. That pretty much set the tone. I'll try to sum up the major points.Most answers dealt with taxes and the economy (even when the question itself really didn't).

Federal Healthcare Reform Grants
Dayton and Horner both agreed that Pawlenty shouldn't just flat out reject all federal healthcare grants and doing so can hurt Minnesota. Emmer declined to directly answer and instead said he hadn't read it and what Pawlenty does is for Pawlenty.

Clean Water
Horner said the governor needs to listen to the DNR about clean water issues. Dayton says the agencies need better commissioners so they do their job. Emmer says the problem is "too much government."

Minnesota's Economic Woes
To help the economy, Dayton said it would be a challenge but proposed a strategy that could include a bonding bill, an energy plan to retrofit old buildings, educational investments, and a Vikings stadium to create jobs. He also proposed lowering property taxes and streamlining government (without specifics on that). Emmer says that government is "literally suffocating the private economy." He proposes reducing government, taxes, and regulations (didn't say which ones) and streamlining government to allow people to grow. Horner says he is the only one with an actual plan that includes eliminating taxes on business equipment, integrating higher education programs with local economies, streamlining government, expediting permit processes, expanding broadband, investing in higher education institutions' research, and providing resources to local communities.

Closing Higher Education Institutions
When asked if they think some higher education institutions should be closed, Dayton said "no" and that they are a great asset to their local communities in greater Minnesota. Horner said that a year that will bring a new University president, a new MNSCU chancellor, and a new governor would be a great opportunity to sit down and evaluate what we need from our schools and how to get it. Everything would be on the table. Emmer said the question should really be whether we need all the programs each campus offers and suggested specialized campuses to certain programs. He also said we should work to lower administration costs. A rare agreement for him and Dayton.

When asked if they would sign anti-bullying legislation, Horner and Dayton both said that they would. Dayton said "We need to make it clear. Not in our schools. Not in our city. Not in our state." Emmer said he'd "have to see it first." (There have been a number of proposed anti-bullying bills in the MN Legislature in recent years. Since Rep. Emmer has been serving there I assume he has some familiarity with them.) He said it was an issue for parents, not government.

School Referendums and a Whole Bunch of Unrelated Issues
Of all the questions in the debate, this one went the furthest off track and I think this is a prime example of where the moderator needed to step in. An audience member asked if the candidates would allow school boards to renew operating levy referendums without voter approval. Horner said yes with some limitations, as long as it is a straight renewal. Dayton said yes as long as it was renewal of a previously voter approved referendum and pointed out that we need to improve our school funding so that they don't need to keep relying on referendums. That is when the train went off the track. Rather than answering the question, Tom Emmer told the audience that Mark Dayton was going to raise their taxes to 17 or 18%. Dayton said Emmer needed a plan. Emmer said raising taxes on those with a taxable income of over $150,000 would "hammer the middle class" and demanded to know what the limit would be as to how high Dayton would go. Dayton said he'd keep it under 11% and then pointed out that Emmer would reduce funding for LGA and K-12. Emmer denied that and said that he is fine with local government aid as long as it only goes for essential services which he defined as police, fire, water, and sewer. Horner then chimed in saying that his tax plan has guards against "regressivity." Dayton joined in the childish games and then wanted to know why people making a half a million or a million dollars shouldn't pay even one dollar more in taxes, stating the question repeatedly when the others didn't answer him. That was the point where Tom Horner's patience ran out and he exclaimed frustratedly "That's not  your plan!" followed by the claim that a nurse and a teacher make $150,000 (Many in the crowd booed that.)  and that $150,000 in income is not $150,000 in wealth. Emmer than made what I think will be the hardest campaign promise to keep that if he is elected, no one's taxes will go up and he'd actually reduce taxes for everyone. There was little order to that part of the debate. It was like a bunch of ideological clowns piling out of the political car.

Vision for Minnesota
Dayton's vision for Minnesota included making taxes fair, balancing the budget, cutting spending, and investing in education which he said is key to the future. He said that investing in education, keeping tuition affordable, and investing in early education would help lead our state to greater job growth. Emmer said that Minnesotans are sick of people pointing the finger at others. He said "We're about articulating the vision we have for this state." (An odd argument in a debate in which he often used the phrase "When we release our plan") In response to Dayton's answer of investing in key areas, he said that we can't invest what we don't have and said we need to bring back jobs to Minnesota. Horner said that the governor sets the tone. He must be honest and build consensus, not drive wedges. He said he's willing to be a lightning rod and take the hit for decisions on tough issues. In a veiled swipe at Pawlenty he said that for him to be governor is not a stepping stone, but a capstone in his career.

"More Taxes =Less Freedom"
A online question said that that was on a billboard near her house and wanted to know what that meant to each candidate. Horner used it as a chance to defend his plan saying that although no one likes taxes, we need reform. He said that everyone should pay their fair share and we should invest in Minnesotans from the "cradle to the grave." He proclaimed "We are a great state. We need to build to be an even greater state." Tom Emmer said that the more government takes out of our pockets, the less opportunity we create for ourselves and that a "rising tide lifts all boats." He says we need people with resources to create jobs. Mark Dayton said that government should only take what's necessary to provide services that people cannot provide for themselves and that he was endorsed by the police and fire fighters for that reason.

Playing Well With Others and the Power of the Governor
When asked if they would be able to compromise with other parties, Dayton replied, "Absolutely." He spoke of a sign that hung in Rudy Perpich's office that read "None of us is as smart as all of us" and said he'd put that sign back in his office. He cited the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon campaign as an example of how he did that in the US Senate. Emmer elicited some laughter from the crowd when he responded "Oh, yeah." without hesitation. He said he has good relationships with people across the aisle in the MN Legislature and then took a turn off topic by claiming that if elected he would use a power beyond unallotment. He said that the "First things first legislation should be passed first thing. Then in January, the governor could declare a "fiscal emergency" at which point the legislature would have 45 days to produce a balanced budget. Tom Horner cited Jesse Ventura and his cabinet as an example of doing that. He said that you can't find common ground when you insist on only doing things your way. He said that we need to focus on equality, education, and the most vulnerable Minnesotans and that "bold leadership starts with bold voters."

Funding the Court System
Horner says he will and that he has a proposal. Emmer said that it is a priority. Dayton promised to pass on their proposed budget to the legislature exactly as it is submitted.

Final Pleas
Dayton said this election is about our future-education transportation, jobs. He cited his experience and said he can make the government work better when we work together. Emmer thanked a lot of people and said that this election offers a clear choice to do things how we've always done them or go a new way. He said you can choose between "Someone who will take ALL of your money out of you pocket." (A reference to Dayton. Emphasis Emmer's) and someone "who wants to tax the shirt right off your back." (a reference to Horner's proposal to extend sales taxe to clothing) He then said that "We offer a new way." Horner once again said it is about leadership and who you trust. He said he has a clear plan, but needs voters to "be leaders" this November (a reference to the uphill battle of being an Independence party candidate).

That's the debate. Sorry for the length of the post, but I didn't know how else to sum up the chaos. I hope that in the future the debates cover more issues more specifically. I'd like to here more specifics about healthcare, educational funding, how to ensure we have enough public defenders, etc. I am also anxiously waiting for Tom Emmer's campaign to release an actual comprehensive budget plan. With less than two months to go, I'm cautiously optimistic that some of those things will be discussed. You can only listen to the same rhetoric over and over for so long. I hope that we delve into more specifics soon.

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