ALEXANDRIA, MINN. – Gov. Mark Dayton called the troubled rollout of the MNsure insurance exchange the low point of his first term in a campaign appearance Wednesday, but embraced the program’s successes in extending insurance coverage to those who historically struggled to get it.
“I want to apologize for the excessive burdens it’s placed on you, your budgets and your people,” Dayton told a gathering of county officials. “The problems that have afflicted the inception of MNsure are my biggest disappointment in my term as governor. It’s got better, and it will continue to get better, but it still has a ways to go.”
Dayton and his Republican opponent, Jeff Johnson, made their first joint appearance of the campaign on Wednesday — sort of — as they addressed the same audience at a yearly meeting of the Association of Minnesota Counties. But instead of sharing the stage, the two spoke separately several minutes apart, avoiding any actual contact.
“I think the campaign officially started yesterday, the day after Labor Day,” Johnson told county officials. After several weeks that included little more than a handful of State Fair appearances, Johnson vowed to have a more visible campaign presence in the pivotal two months leading up to Election Day.
Talking to a crowd of about 200 county commissioners at Arrowwood Resort, both candidates displayed moments of candor.
Johnson — a Hennepin County commissioner himself since 2008 — informed his peers that as a state legislator a decade ago, he voted to cut the local government aid programs that send state funds to counties. Johnson said those aid programs started as a way to equalize funding for counties with low property wealth. “I think we’ve moved a long way from that, and are directing state money now to areas that probably don’t need that redistribution,” he said, although he did not name specific counties.
After years of aid reductions under Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, levels have risen significantly during Dayton’s tenure. Dayton vowed that in a second term he would continue to look for ways the state could ease tight budgets for local governments, which in turn reduces the pressure to raise property taxes.
Dayton also took it upon himself to apologize to the county leaders for the MNsure debacle. The exchange’s website was plagued for months with bugs and glitches; as the front-line administrators of government benefits, many Minnesota counties felt the problems deeply.
Even as he acknowledged the problems, Dayton flouted the conventional political wisdom that MNsure, along with the federal Affordable Care Act, would be a political burden for Democrats in November. He said the program would continue to improve, and said he’s spoken to many Minnesotans who said it improved their lives, particularly with the provision that people with pre-existing medical conditions can’t be denied insurance coverage.
“One gentleman told me last week at the State Fair, quote, ‘MNsure saved my life, and my wife’s life,’ ” Dayton said.
Johnson, who spoke before Dayton, did not bring up MNsure, though he has been a harsh critic. If elected governor, Johnson has said he would push for a federal waiver that would allow Minnesota to take down the state exchange. Failing that, he would exclude Minnesota from participating in the Affordable Care Act. A spokesman for Johnson said later that if the waiver couldn’t be obtained, Johnson would attempt to increase the number of plans offered through MNsure and boost the number of insurance industry executives on the exchange’s board of directors.
Dayton and Johnson also sparred indirectly over transportation. The governor said the need for billions of dollars to prop up the state’s aging transportation infrastructure would be one of the major issues facing whoever is governor come January 2015.
He offered no specifics when asked how the state should raise that money. He previously has been reluctant to support a gas tax increase, and said Wednesday that likely would not raise enough money anyway. Dayton said he hoped to initiate a discussion with Minnesotans about what additional revenue they might be willing to bear for transportation upgrades.
The governor cited the 2008 Legacy Amendment, for which voters willingly approved a statewide sales tax increase to pay for spending on arts, outdoor recreation and water quality improvements, as potentially instructive to transportation boosters. “It showed that people will dig into their pockets for things they consider priorities,” Dayton said.
Johnson said he would redirect state money away from mass transit programs, including the planned Southwest light-rail line, which he said he would seek to cancel. Johnson said he also believes the state should do more borrowing to pay for transportation projects, and look for efficiencies at the state Department of Transportation.
Dayton criticized that last suggestion as “just fanciful,” saying it would be impossible to come up with the kind of money that’s needed.