NISSWA, MINN. - Restrained by nature, Independence Party candidate Tom Horner let rip at a gubernatorial debate on Tuesday, where all three candidates argued before business leaders that they hold the key to reviving the state's sagging fortunes.

"With all due respect, Representative Emmer, it is not assigning blame to say Republicans have dropped the ball for the last eight years," said Horner, a former Republican who bolted his party to run under the IP banner. "It is holding the party accountable."

Horner then used a classic Republican line against DFL candidate Mark Dayton, saying Dayton's income tax increase would kill jobs. "There is not a small business in Minnesota ... that can afford a doubling of their tax rate as you have proposed it," Horner said.

With Minnesota still in the throes of its deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression and more than 200,000 Minnesotans still out of work, reviving the state's economy has become the front-and-center issue in the race for governor.

Tom Emmer said he would ease life for business owners by stripping down what he said are cumbersome, confusing and duplicative permitting processes that drive business owners mad and companies across the border to the Dakotas and Iowa.

"We need to turn Minnesota into a one-stop shop for businesses," Emmer said.

A former U.S. senator and state auditor, Dayton stood firmly behind a tax plan that sends shivers through many business leaders -- increasing taxes on the state's highest earners.

The state, he said, must strike "a balance between business taxation and individual taxation to solve the $6 billion deficit and make investments in the future of Minnesota."

Dayton has said that his plan would pinch some, but will pay dividends by stabilizing the state's revenues and preventing further erosions in education and other areas.

Before the debate, Dayton challenged the 200 business leaders who had assembled at Grand View Lodge near Brainerd, to help him find ways in the next month to cut the budget without "causing drastic effects on the lives of Minnesotans." The debate was sponsored by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Brainerd Lakes Chamber.

The Minnesota Chamber has not endorsed a candidate, but Chamber President David Olson is a founder of MN Forward, an independent political organization backing Emmer.

But it was Horner, a former public relations consultant with deep ties to business, who stayed long after the debate had ended, huddled with a group of business leaders to talk over their concerns.

Over a lunch of salmon, mashed potatoes and carrot cake, the business leaders listened politely and applauded all. Questions were asked through a moderator, with no follow-ups or interaction with the audience.

Although he has lobbed his share of criticism at a government led by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty for the last eight years, Emmer on Tuesday said that "Minnesotans are tired of people assessing blame" for the state's dilemma. "We need to point in a new direction and not get caught up in whose fault it is," he said.

Emmer said the state must radically "reform and redesign" government, but he continued to decline to release any details, which he says will come later this year.

That prompted Dayton to renew his demand that Emmer produce a budget plan "in real-world terms" that would resolve the state's estimated $6 billion budget shortfall.

Talking education

Dayton, who has pledged to increase education funding, said Minnesotans "would be horrified" if they knew state education funding has fallen by $1,300 per student under Pawlenty.

The state's jammed classrooms, soaring public college tuition and increasing numbers of school districts considering four-day school weeks are proof, he said, that education funding is not sufficient

Horner said the state should look at the entire education system as one complete unit and make more investment in two-year and four-year colleges. "We look at education like silos; we need to look at it as seamless, cradle to grave," Horner said.

Emmer took a jab at both rivals, saying the solution on education and other issues is reform, not more money.

If dollars were the answer, Emmer said, Minneapolis would not have the dropout rates it has.

While Emmer and Dayton have spent previous debates needling each other and seemingly ignoring Horner, the longtime businessman and former political commentator later said he intends to make himself a force in the race.

"I understand what it takes to grow jobs in Minnesota, I understand my own proposals and I understand this campaign is about leadership," Horner said.

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288