ROCHESTER, Minn. (AP) — The strength of Minnesota's economy put Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican nominee Jeff Johnson at odds Wednesday night in an opening debate that also saw skirmishes over health care and transportation.
Dayton worked to convince voters that things have looked up dramatically since he took over, with a massive budget deficit erased and unemployment way down. Johnson looked to mute that argument by saying private-sector employers have been restrained in hiring and many middle-class Minnesotans are working beneath their pay and skill levels.
The debate in a Rochester auditorium was televised nationally on C-SPAN and around Minnesota on public TV stations. It also featured the Independence Party's Hannah Nicollet, who swerved to the right of Johnson in calling for the elimination of Minnesota's corporate tax. Nicollet was sometimes in line with Dayton, including her openness to raising the gas tax to fund road construction.
Going at the poll-leader Dayton from the start, Johnson said remaining struggles are especially acute in places outside Minnesota's Twin Cities region.
"Greater Minnesota in many ways has become an afterthought in this state, whether you're looking at where we spend our transportation dollars, whether you are looking at K-12 funding formulas, whether you're looking at some of the regulations that are killing our farmers, our miners and our loggers in this state," said Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner. He said he'd rejigger aid programs to send fewer dollars to center cities and more to distressed towns.
Dayton took offense and pointed to a massive Mayo Clinic expansion project underway and a water pipeline project deemed critical to southwestern Minnesota. "The facts just don't support what Commissioner Johnson alleges," Dayton said.
The multibillion-dollar Mayo expansion — a crucial project in a swing-voting area — relies on hefty state and local subsidies, which Johnson has questioned in the past. At the debate, Johnson said "government does have a role to play with public-private partnerships" but he would have fashioned the Mayo deal differently.
On a day when new estimates for health insurance plans were released, the state's virtual marketplace known as MNsure scored only brief attention. On average, rates will rise by 4.5 percent next year, but some consumers could see their premiums jump by double-digits.
Johnson said the rates are proof that Minnesota's experience with the federal health law has "been an unmitigated disaster, and it's hurting thousands of people."
Dayton refuted the dour assessment, accusing his GOP opponent of passing off "misleading" statistics.
"The Affordable Care Act has opened the door for people to both afford and be ensured that they're going to have quality care," he said, boasting that Minnesota's rate of uninsured is down by 40 percent.
If elected, Johnson said he would replace MNsure's governing board and ask for a federal waiver from the health law's requirements.
There were areas of agreement: Dayton, Johnson and Nicollet all said they would sign legislation allowing liquor stores to open on Sundays. None would make it harder to put proposed constitutional amendments on the statewide ballot. They voiced backing for a public financing role in getting broadband Internet to far-flung areas.
All three said transportation would be a priority given an estimated $20 billion project backlog, though Johnson stressed increased state borrowing would be his preferred method. Dayton said roads and bridges "continue to deteriorate unless investments overall are increased," arguing new revenue is essential.
Nicollet, a software developer, has been only a blip in polls. But past Independence Party nominees have played deciding roles in close races. She isn't guaranteed a seat in the remaining four debates, but Dayton made clear he wants her there.
As it stands, Dayton and Johnson will be one-on-one Wednesday in Moorhead.
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