ALEXANDRIA, Minn. – The two major-party candidates for governor disagreed Thursday about how the state should tackle the opioid epidemic, an issue of growing concern for county leaders worried about the increasing burden on local budgets of preventing and treating addiction.
At an Association of Minnesota Counties conference in Alexandria, Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Walz said he'd pick up the push for a "penny a pill" proposal that would require pharmaceutical companies to pay a fee for the opioids they sell. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers unsuccessfully pursued that in this year's legislative session.
Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, the Republican candidate, does not support that approach, which he said amounts to a new tax. He said the money should instead come directly from the state's general fund, which is fueled by income taxes and other state taxes.
Walz and Johnson talked about a range of issues at the county government conference, including transportation funding, polarization in Minnesota politics, and frustration with top-down governance and unfunded mandates.
Walz and Johnson offered a similar promise: that county leaders would have a voice in their future policymaking.
"My responsibility is to make sure you are never surprised, you are part of the decisionmaking on the front end, you are not being lectured to or have unfunded mandates before you have the opportunity to say what is the best way to deliver that," Walz told the crowd.
One of the major issues for the local government leaders is how state mandates, on everything from child protection to mental health services, have stacked up with insufficient funding to support the work.
Johnson said his approach to such mandates will be shaped by his experience as a county commissioner and his belief that the most local level of government tends to make the best decisions for the people they represent.
"I will likely look at them much more closely and much more skeptically than any governor has in the past," Johnson said.
Walz said in an interview after his speech that he would audit what's being asked of counties and the costs. Then he said he would figure out, with help from the counties, how to adjust things.
The association's various policy committees start shaping their 2019 legislative platforms during this week's conference. Opioids, and substance abuse generally, was a big part of this year's discussion. County officials spent all of Wednesday on the topic, something they have not previously done, according to the association's executive director, Julie Ring.
Harlan Madsen, a dairy farmer who has served as a Kandiyohi County commissioner for 24 years, said addiction is "a 2,000-pound gorilla out there that has to be dealt with."
Government officials have been throwing money at the problem and need to take a close look at where to target resources, including shifting some funding from incarceration to prevention, said Madsen, an independent who said he has not yet decided which candidate would best lead the state.
Both candidates talked about working with local partners when they pass laws. One regulation that caused a lot of tension between agricultural communities and Dayton's administration was his push for buffer zones to prevent pollution from running into public waters.
Both Walz, of Mankato, and Johnson, of Plymouth, said they know farmers want to improve water quality and in many cases are already working independently on the issue. But the approach the state took created division, they said.
The rule was "passed down from on high," Johnson said. While regulations are often necessary, he said he would tell state agency leaders their top job is to create an attitude of service. Walz offered a similar answer, saying he wants to instill "regulatory humility" and as he develops policies he would start bouncing ideas off county officials early on.
The nonpartisan Association of Minnesota Counties does not endorse candidates, but it is a strong voice at the State Capitol representing Minnesota's 87 counties. During the last legislative session the group called on state lawmakers to put more than $50 million toward expanding broadband access, invest in mental health resources, make policy changes related to opioid addiction and dedicate new revenue for roads, bridges and transit.
The association has held similar gubernatorial candidate forums for the past couple elections, Ring said. As Johnson and Walz shape their policies and campaign issues it's critical for them to know what's on the mind of county officials, and the pressures they face, she said.
"Counties are essentially the administrative arm of the state," she said, on everything from health and human services to corrections to transportation. "The policy that a governor sets is often delivered by local government."