Johnson, Walz spar in first governor's debate since primary victories
NISSWA—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.
In terms of the state's roadways, transit-systems (like rail or bus), bridges and others, Johnson said government doesn't focus its resources well—often allocating funding to initiatives that benefit a small segment of Minnesotans or favor certain and often unrealistic forms of transportation (such as trollies, light-rail or bike paths, he noted) over others, instead of thinking in terms of what benefits the state as a whole.
"What we need to focus on is the things Minnesotans need, rely on and want," said Johnson, who noted roads and bridges should take precedence because commuters, carriers, social services and even people who don't travel often benefit from them the most.
Johnson said he would not be in favor of a gas tax increase—citing it, currently, as in the top 10 highest in the nation. Walz challenged Johnson on this, citing the state's gas tax is actually lower than the nation's median rate.
Walz said we need to have a dialogue about what forms of transportation work best for the various regions, cities and demographics of the state—not getting bogged down, he said, in old spats that portray the issue as the Metro versus rural Greater Minnesota.
"We've seen people use this to split us, geographically, and split us as a state by saying transportation is draining dollars from road and bridges," Walz said. "We need to have an honest discussion about what projects need to be done."
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. "We can't cut corners on this."
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, Johnson said, is sitting on top of one of the largest deposits of natural metals in the globe—on par with a similar deposit in South America, he noted, which would strip mine these metals while Minnesotans can ensure safe practices and that mining jobs are kept in 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.
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."
Debunking misconceptions he's against protections against pre-existing conditions, Johnson said he's always in support of protecting the most vulnerable, it's simply a matter of how this is funded. He also noted he's in favor of rolling back state mandates, forming market compacts with neighboring states and incentivizing businesses to self insure.
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 and it doesn't work if consumers have no frame of reference, say to repair a broken arm, in order to choose what works best and is most affordable.
"The myth there's a free market in this—you don't even know how things cost," Walz said.
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.
In three additional points, Walz said people need to buy into a larger program to better protect anyone and everyone. He said aspects of Obamacare don't work for higher-income recipients exactly because the individual free market is dysfunctional.
Bipartisanship in St. Paul
Speaking in terms of legislative dysfunction in the state Capitol—where the last three sessions have ended in chaos—and general divides between Republicans and Democrats, Walz pointed to his track record in Congress as a coalition maker and compromiser. Last-minute backroom deals and shutdowns are some cited consequences of this dysfunction.
"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. He would stipulate a 48-hour period for review as well.
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
Speaking on the issue of property taxes, income taxes, sale taxes—or, in general, economic forces that factor heavily in whether businesses or people come to Minnesota—as well as regulating commerce, Johnson said there needs to a general scale-back in order to give these entities room to grow.
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. This especially becomes a weighty issue, he noted, when one considers how many lower-taxed states depend on federal dollars funneled in from Minnesota.
"We rank incredibly high on many scales, in terms of per-capita income, life expectancy, to education outcomes," said Walz, who noted he would be favor of streamlining tax structures to maximize benefits and reduce costs. "The question where we always get lost is big government versus small government—that's the wrong question. It needs to be the right amount."
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, he said, and tax dollars can then be allocated to other areas of need—supporting and educating communities of color, he noted as an example, which are projected to account for 70 percent of the workforce in 25 years.
In terms of regulation, Walz said he would be in favor of "regulatory humility"—or, assuming the businesses and corporate entities are compliant, so as to carefully dictate when government gets involved in commercial affairs.
Walz said he would also be in favor of axing unnecessary regulations—not the necessary requirement for smoke alarms, he used as an example, but requirements for 10 separate documents to certify that a place of business has a smoke alarm.
In response, Johnson said the only way the state will be able to achieve this regulatory humility is to rein in its overzealous regulatory agencies—which, in some cases, may mean restructuring how they function and cleaning house in terms of leadership, he said.
"I can also tell you we will eliminate regulations," Johnson said. "Because we have far too many."
Both Johnson and Walz said they support the public school system—which produces good results, Johnson said, while Walz characterized it as a great equalizer in society in a viable path for people to join the middle class.
Where they differed was voucher schools.
While Walz said he respects the people's right to choose the education path for their children (such as homeschooling), voucher schools represent taking taxpayer dollars and funding area-specific institutions, which often leaves lower income and rural schools severely underfunded.
Walz challenged Johnson's notions of "throwing money" at problems—noting that many factors in failing student populations include homelessness, trauma and chronic hunger or domestic issues, none of which can be solved by undercutting funding to the schools they attend.
Johnson said it's part of the public mandate of government to ensure each student is getting a top-notch education—sometimes, he noted, this isn't possible at certain public schools and private institutions, like voucher schools, provide good alternatives for parents.
He took aim at the abysmal opportunity gap between white students and students of color in the state as an example of these disparities.
"We have for like decades—we've been wringing our hands for 30, 40 years—and nothing is changing," Johnson said of the public education system. "I believe, at the very least, for those schools that are failing the kids, we should give some choice, we should give complete choice to the parents."
Citing a "parent-trigger" option, Johnson said there could be elements of choice implemented in school districts, which enables parents to, via popular referendum, replace the administrative structure in schools that continue to fail predetermined metrics of effectiveness.
Both candidates said they are in favor of alternative forms of post secondary certification—two-year vocational degrees, apprenticeships and trade degrees, for example, instead of four-year degrees.
Both candidates also said there's an unfair cultural stigma for students who pursue these degrees, despite these professions being respected, needed and gravely short-handed industries within the workforce.
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—with renewables rating as cost effective as more traditional forms of energy—that there's actually money to be made for the state by doubling down on green energy in the public and private sectors.
"Saying that this is not an issue that needs to be addressed is absolutely catastrophic for the state of Minnesota," Walz said.
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. In general, he said measures to scale back carbon emissions and greenhouse gasses would not only prove pointless, but ultimately hurt Minnesotans and their checkbooks.
The governor's debate at Grand View Lodge was organized by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters.