MOORHEAD, Minn. – Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican Jeff Johnson faced off Wednesday in the second debate of the campaign, sparring over the economy, education and policies affecting outstate Minnesota.
The debate was largely cordial, but Dayton quickly went on the offensive against Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner, criticizing him for his record as a state lawmaker.
The two candidates repeatedly clashed over their political philosophies, with Johnson calling for reducing taxes. Dayton, meanwhile, said he supported a gas tax hike to fund much-needed state transportation projects and touted as one of his accomplishments a tax hike on Minnesota’s wealthiest that helped balance the state’s budget.
Held at Minnesota State University, Moorhead, the debate focused heavily on topics critical to non-metro Minnesota, such as a proposed $6.2 billion oil pipeline, flood control projects in the Fargo-Moorhead region and rural job opportunities for college graduates. Hannah Nicollet, the Indepedence Party candidate and former software developer, also participated.
Johnson, who was born and raised in Detroit Lakes about 45 miles east of Moorhead, accused Dayton of steering his administration in a “metro-centric” direction. He criticized Dayton and running mate Tina Smith for not hailing from outside of the Twin Cities.
“I’ve been going statewide as United States senator, as governor, all over the state,” an incensed Dayton said. “I’ll match the number of miles I’ve spent traveling around Minnesota over the last 20 years with yours any day.”
Johnson repeatedly criticized Dayton for what he says is his role in the delay of the proposed expansion of the Sandpiper oil pipeline. That line would carry North Dakota oil across the state to a terminal in Superior, Wis.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission last month ordered further study of the proposed pipeline through northern Minnesota. Canadian firm Enbridge Energy said the added environmental reviews would delay the project by at least a year.
“Your [PUC] appointees are trying to kill it,” Johnson said.
Dayton said he supports the pipeline expansion but said environmental assessments need to be completed first.
Moorhead is a longtime political swing area in the state. In 2010, Dayton won Moorhead’s Clay County by about 500 votes over Republican Tom Emmer, and the region has traditionally sent both Democrats and Republicans to the state Legislature.
Transportation funding emerged as a key topic Wednesday, with all three candidates agreeing that finding a way to pay for roads and bridges in the state should be a high legislative priority during the next session.
Dayton said a gas tax increase would be part of a broader transportation-funding proposal that would likely include highway construction bonds. The DFL incumbent has not yet issued a final proposal, but a spokesman said Wednesday night that the new tax would be levied on wholesalers and not change the current 28.5 cents per gallon tax that Minnesota motorists pay at the pump.
Johnson said he would put forth a bonding bill but vehemently opposed a gas tax increase, criticizing the governor for already raising taxes on the state’s top-earning residents.
“We had the biggest tax increase in state history and we’re saying we don’t have the money to fill potholes,” he said.
The debate, which lasted 90 minutes, included questions submitted through social media and by audience members. The questions were wide-ranging, including one that asked the gubernatorial candidates whether they supported legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.
Dayton and Johnson both said they would oppose legalizing the drug’s recreational use, but the Republican challenger said he would expand the state’s current medical marijuana law if he were governor. Nicollet said she would push to legalize recreational use of cannabis.
The debate highlighted stark differences between the two leading candidates’ governing philosophies and views of the state’s economic health.
Johnson said that reducing corporate taxes and streamlining regulations would make the state more competitive and create more jobs for recent college graduates. He cited a state Department of Employment and Economic Development finding that one in two Minnesotans hold more education than their jobs require, calling it a measure of underemployment.
“I truly feel you are out of touch with what’s going on in this state,” Johnson said when Dayton called the statistic misleading.
Polls released last week show that Dayton holds a double-digit lead over Johnson. Rasmussen Reports said Dayton is at 50 percent to Johnson’s 40 percent; Survey USA reported a slightly wider lead, pegging Dayton at 51 percent compared with Johnson’s 39 percent.
TV advertising in the race continues to be light. Dayton so far has aired two television ads, Johnson just one ad. A few outside groups, however, have also weighed in on both sides.
In fundraising, Johnson trails Dayton. As of the last filing period, Johnson had $866,000 in his campaign war chest while Dayton had $1.7 million.
Nicollet, who has scored very low in most polls and not yet made a noticeable mark on the race, originally had not been scheduled to participate.
But debate sponsors at Forum News Service, based in Fargo, N.D., decided earlier this week to invite her after she produced a July poll that showed her with 11 percent support, which is above the Forum’s 10 percent threshold for participating candidates.
There are three more debates in the race after this: Oct. 14 in Duluth, and Oct. 19 and 31 in St. Paul.