In their final debate, Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith and Republican challenger Karin Housley took issue with each other’s positions on tax cuts, regulations, health care and immigration.
Housley said that it’s important to encourage women to seek equal pay, but that adding more government mandates squelches small businesses. She highlighted the state’s Women’s Economic Security Act as an example — Housley voted against it as a state senator — and added that laws requiring equal pay are already in place.
“Whenever you put women in their own category and not make them strong and tell them we have to make laws because you aren’t equal to men, that’s a problem,” Housley said at the Sunday evening debate at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul.
Smith voiced support for the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that would hold employers more accountable if they pay employees differently for the same work.
“When women have economic security, families have economic security, and our whole economy is better,” said Smith.
The two are running in a special election to serve out the last two years of former U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s term after he resigned over allegations of sexual misconduct in January. Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Smith to take his place this year, and a Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll last month showed her leading 47-41 percent.
MPR hosted Sunday’s debate.
Housley also said she opposes raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour, again noting the burden on small businesses. And she said the GOP tax cuts approved nearly a year ago are already leading to wage increases.
“Let businesses and competition decide what the minimum wage should be,” she said.
Smith, for her part, supports increasing the federal minimum wage. She agreed that the economy was going well, but pointed out that she opposed the Republican tax code overhaul and that most of the savings had gone to the wealthy and big corporations. Rising health care costs and inflation are eating up any wage increases for people at the bottom, she said.
Smith also raised alarms about how much the tax cuts had contributed to the national debt, saying, “We’re borrowing that money from the children in the audience — no offense to the adults in the room.”
Asked how she would address the national debt, Housley said that she would cut spending, not of one big program, but rather a little in each area. She also vowed to reduce duplicative work at government agencies.
“We’ve been on a spending spree — we don’t need to introduce more taxes to pay for it,” said Housley. “We have to curb our spending.”
Smith suggested saving money by allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies for lower prescription costs, along with following the recommendations of a recent report about eliminating wasteful administrative spending at the U.S. Department of Defense.
The pair clashed on health care, with Housley arguing that the Affordable Care Act is not working and saying that only more competition can lower health insurance costs, not the single-payer system that Smith supports. Smith, for her part, accused Housley of not wanting to protect people who have pre-existing health conditions.
Asked about the looming funding crisis for Social Security, Smith expressed support for extending the amount of income subject to the payroll tax for high earners. Housley said she wanted to reform the immigration system to bring in more people who can pay into the system.
Housley repeatedly accused Smith of supporting open borders, though Smith said that she had voted for increased border security. Smith said she supported the bipartisan immigration reform package that passed the Senate in 2013.
“We have to put America first,” said Housley when asked about Trump’s comments favoring nationalism over globalism, adding that the U.S. can’t be the police in every country.
Smith said people are tired of the politics of blame and divisiveness.
“You have to be willing to listen to people and try to find common ground even with people you disagree with,” she said.