Governor candidates pick up debate pace

Published 10:04 am Thursday, October 9, 2014

MOORHEAD — Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican challenger Jeff Johnson picked up the intensity in a debate Wednesday before a northwestern Minnesota crowd, arguing about taxes, an oil pipeline and economic growth.

Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet also took part in the 90-minute event — the second of five scheduled debates.

It began with Johnson telling the Minnesota State University Moorhead crowd that the Dayton administration has treated anywhere outside the Twin Cities area as “largely an afterthought.” Johnson said he has a greater appreciation for those residents because he has roots in the Detroit Lakes and Crookston areas.

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Dayton responded that he has sponsored development projects in Dilworth, Hawley and Moorhead and highlighted the 2.8 percent unemployment rate in the Moorhead and Fargo, North Dakota, metro area.

“I’ll match the number of miles I spent traveling around greater Minnesota over the last 20 years with yours any day,” he told Johnson.

Dayton emphasized his support for a new wholesale tax on gasoline, separate to the tax paid by consumers at pumps, pushing it for the first time as his main transportation finance option. He did not say how much the tax would be or what it would raise for road construction.

Last spring, transportation funding advocates called for a five-percent sales tax on gasoline at the wholesale level, which they said could generate $350 million more per year for construction. Only eight other states have a similar tax, according to Minnesota House researchers.

Dayton said he favors prioritizing spending to pay for infrastructure, as Johnson and Nicollet suggested, but that it’s time to find ways to cover the more than $6.5 billion needed just to maintain roads and bridges.

“We need more revenues. We’re going to have to come up with more revenues,” Dayton said.

Johnson later said there was “a great divide” between his philosophy on taxes and that of Dayton, saying taxes should be “low, broad and simple” to keep people and companies from bolting to neighboring states.

Dayton responded: “Commissioner Johnson, ‘low, broad and simple’ is not a tax policy. It’s a slogan.”

The lively debate was in stark contrast to their first meeting, where there were few back-and-forth exchanges. One of the more illuminating dustups came when each was offering his position on an oil pipeline that has yet to win regulatory approval in Minnesota.