Gubernatorial candidates differ on how to fix budget deficit

Andrew Pritchard

The four major-party gubernatorial candidates discussed the state’s higher education funding priorities in a televised debate Monday.

The state faces a $3 billion deficit entering a legislative session in which the University will present its biennial bonding request.

Independence Party candidate Tim Penny, also senior fellow and co-director of the University’s Humphrey Institute Policy Forum, said the state needs to think differently about higher education and should prepare students through K-12 education so colleges will not need to spend money offering remedial courses.

Penny said he could not rule out a tuition increase, but he said a governor should be “hand-in-glove” with the new University president and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities chancellor to provide more financial aid.

“We need to focus on financial aid,” Penny said. “We have fallen short in recent years.”

Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe said he favored promoting college courses for high school students, funding the state’s colleges and providing more financial aid.

If the state did that, he said, it would be easier to keep tuition low.

Republican state House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, a University graduate, said the University should be held accountable for its use of state money.

He also said the University performs too many functions that overlap with other state institutions.

“The University is asked to do too much in my view,” he said.

Green Party candidate Ken Pentel said the state should help college students by promoting college courses in high school, paying livable work-study wages, providing day care and granting debt relief to encourage students to “fill needed gaps in society.”

“To make students make decisions based on the debt they’re carrying is unacceptable,” he said.

Pentel also said the state should move toward providing free higher education.

Looming deficit

moe said he would raise taxes if necessary to balance the state budget, but would prefer to cut spending.

“You start by looking on the expenditure side of government,” he said, “and that’s exactly what I will do.”

Pawlenty said government should be held accountable for its finances like a business, and that he was the only candidate who would not raise taxes.

“In these tough times, we need leaders who will hold state government accountable for results,” he said.

Early in the campaign, Pawlenty signed a tax-control pledge sponsored by two conservative groups.

Pentel said he would raise revenues by focusing on pollution’s cost to the public.

“I want honest accounting in Minnesota,” he said.

Pentel’s proposals included a pollution tax and a fee for fresh-water use.

Penny said Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature only delayed the budget problem.

He would review all state funding formulas and spread the deficit burden over all state agencies.

K-12 education funding

as state school districts go back to voters for another round of bonding referendums, Penny said he favored giving districts the authority to tax without voter approval for each levy.

“I think it’s an option that needs to be in the mix,” he said.

Penny also said the state should reduce education mandates and unnecessary testing and assume responsibility for funding special education programs.

Moe said the state should not use local districts’ property tax options to avoid funding schools.

“I think the state needs to meet its commitments,” he said.

Pawlenty said he supported accountability for local schools, measured by better standards and curriculum than the current Profile of Learning.

“We need to recognize that our school funding formula currently is broken,” he said.

Pentel said taxpayers should be able to vote on each local school levy, and he said the state should address other problems such as poverty and energy costs that affect schools.

“The schools have to be not isolated, but part of a larger community,” he said.

Transportation

pawlenty said the state should support efficient public transportation, but focus mainly on expanding roads.

“The bulk of our focus does need to be on expanding road and bridge construction because that’s how most Minnesotans are best served,” he said.

Penny said the state should improve the metro bus system by targeting the most congested transit corridors.

“We’re not going to build our way out of this simply with lanes on roads,” he said.

Moe said his transportation plan includes light rail as well as roads. He said the state might need to raise the gas tax and that metro residents should vote on a sales tax increase to fund transit.

“Bottom line is that there is a cost of doing nothing,” he said.

Pentel said the state is in a planning trap and should build for a variety of transit modes, including city-to-city buses, rail and bikes.

“To do this, we’ve got to clean up our political system,” he said. “Right now, big money dictates an auto-centered economy.”

Down to the wire

the latest Star Tribune Minnesota poll, released Saturday, showed Moe and Pawlenty with 29 percent support each among likely voters.

Penny had 27 percent support, within the poll’s 3 percentage point margin of error, and Pentel had 3 percent support.

The telephone poll surveyed 1,048 likely voters last week. Its margin of error is measured at a 95 percent confidence level.