Gubernatorial hopefuls clash in first debate

Andrew Pritchard

For gubernatorial candidates used to thinking of the state budget in millions, the monetary scale of their issues was reduced to a hundred bucks.

In anticipation of last Wednesday’s debate, Twin Cities Public Television gave each of the four major gubernatorial candidates 100 $1 bills and asked them to divide the money among seven categories of state budget items.

During the debate, televised live on TCPT’s “Almanac,” candidates defended their allocations and pitched their plans for running the state.

Transportation funding led the agenda, and Republican Tim Pawlenty, who allotted 10 percent of his $100 to transportation, said he opposed increasing the gas tax to pay for transportation projects. The current allocation is 4 percent.

Pawlenty also criticized the Hiawatha light rail corridor plan and said a Twin Cities rail system should be built “in corridors where people might actually want to ride,” such as along interstates 35W or 394.

Independence Party candidate Tim Penny, also a senior fellow and co-director of the University’s Humphrey Institute Policy Forum, said money borrowed for transportation development would only need to be paid back later.

“I think people are willing to pay for what they know they need,” he said of a gas tax increase.

Penny said the state should improve Twin Cities public transportation, such as the bus system, and that citizens would “thank the day” the city developed mixed transportation.

Green Party candidate Ken Pentel said policy-makers should “take into account the whole cost of that gallon of gasoline,” such as pollution’s effects on emphysema and cancer rates.

“The car culture is just an economic sinkhole right now,” he said.

Democrat Roger Moe, the state Senate majority leader, said metro-area commuters are fed up with congestion and that the state needs to invest in more roads, a light rail system and a better bus system.

“It’s not an either-or situation,” he said, because Twin Cities population growth will eventually make it impossible to build enough roads if public transportation is not improved.

Despite their differences on transportation policies, however, all four candidates agreed that the Metropolitan Council, the seven-county planning agency that also administers the Twin Cities bus system, should be significantly reformed.

“In a democracy, I don’t like unelected people with that much power,” Pawlenty said.

The 17-member council is appointed by the governor and receives approximately 23 percent of its $382 million budget from a property tax levy.

Pentel said the council should be elected and should rethink regional planning.

K-12 education

Three of the gubernatorial candidates proposed increasing state K-12 education funding to 38 percent in the $100 allocation, up from its current 37 percent. Pentel allocated 31 percent for that budget item.

Moe said if he were elected, he would not demean education like the Jesse Ventura administration and said he would focus on teaching all students to read by third grade.

“The state of Minnesota has an obligation” to fund schools rather than forcing them back to local property taxes, he said.

A record 130 Minnesota school districts convinced their voters to approve excess property tax levies last November, raising money for classroom supplies, teacher salaries and other expenses for which districts felt state funding fell short.

Voters in 58 other districts voted down excess levies, and three large suburban districts have discussed closing schools.

A tax overhaul passed last summer shifted more of the education-funding burden to income and property taxes, easing the state’s property tax burden.

But a recent analysis by the nonpartisan state House research department predicts voters will approve $130 million in special operating levies in November, replacing the double-digit property tax cut homeowners saw this spring with a 12.1 percent increase.

Penny said education is the state’s number one commitment and that the state should not roll back the lower state property taxes. He said he favored more local control of, and accountability for, education and use of state funds, as well as lowering administrative costs.

He also proposed using tax credits to promote school choice.

Pawlenty said he supported accountability for student achievement measured by “world-class standards,” not the current Profile of Learning.

He also said he favored basing teacher pay on performance rather than seniority, ending “social promotion” – moving students to the next grade before they’re ready – and beginning the “next chapter in school choice,” which he said did not necessarily mean vouchers.

“Everyone’s focused on taxes,” said Pawlenty, who has signed the no-new-taxes pledge sponsored by two conservative groups. “We have to focus on spending.”

He said if he had to choose, he would “squeeze” government instead of families.

Moe said Pawlenty’s tax pledge doesn’t apply to property taxes, and he said he favored cutting non-priority spending before going back to the local property tax base.

Pentel said income and user taxes were more efficient funding sources than property tax collection, and he said schools are not isolated from general costs such as transportation that affect everything in society.

Stadium funding

After their extended debates, the candidates engaged in “lightning rounds” of brief comments on such issues as abortion, medicinal marijuana, special driver’s license information on immigrants, concealed weapons, corporate accountability and state funding for a new stadium.

“If baseball goes on strike, the ball game’s over,” Moe said of state funding for a new stadium. He said sports teams are an asset worth protecting but that he supported requiring team owners to provide at least half the money and instituting a user-pays funding system.

Pawlenty said the state has an obligation to try to keep sports in Minnesota, but must keep team owners accountable.

He and Pentel both said the Legislature has more important issues that should come before the stadium.

Penny said teams supported with state money should be required to invest in local neighborhoods, and that as little stadium funding as possible should come from taxpayers.

The entire debate can be viewed in RealVideo format by going to tpt.org and clicking “Election 2002,” then “debates.”

Andrew Pritchard covers politics and
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