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Former legislator is Johnson’s running mate for governor’s office

Former State Rep. Bill Kuisle has been out of politics for 10 years, but since last month, when he agreed to serve on the ticket with Republican-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson, things have heated up fast.

On Thursday alone, the lieutenant governor candidate had a dozen interviews set up in eight or nine communities in northwestern Minnesota, including two stops in Detroit Lakes.

A Rochester farmer, Kuisle served in the state House of Representatives from 1996 to 2004.

Kuisle said Johnson recruited him in part because was known as a great advocate for greater Minnesota.

“As a spokesman for rural Minnesota, you never back down,” he said Johnson told him.

If elected, Johnson is likely to take a different approach to working with the DFL than did Kurt Zellers, the Republican House speaker who was involved in a state government shutdown over a budget disagreement with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

Zellers is also on the ballot for the Aug. 12 primary election.

“I’m not sure it’s a good thing to shut government down and cause turmoil,” Kuisle said, adding that it hurts business and it hurts the people of the state.

Kuisle, who served as chairman of the Transportation Commit-tee, and sat on the Ways and Means Committee, said he would like to see the state’s transportation problems solved without a tax increase.

When it comes to the state’s transportation system, The Transportation Alliance, an advocacy group that includes dozens of cities, counties and businesses, has identified some $4 billion in needs.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said this year that the state will have to look at transportation issues next year.

Kuisle believes the $4 billion estimate is overblown, and meeting the actual needs would cost about half that. And he said he and Johnson would “sure like to try” meeting transportation needs without raising any taxes.

“The mileage tax they’re talking about really cripples greater Minnesota,” he said. That refers to a study of 15,000 motorists who were tracked using state-supplied smart phones, with the idea being that they would pay a fee based on miles traveled rather than the per-gallon gasoline tax.

There were a lot of glitches, and only one in five of the participants believed the phones accurately tracked their mileage, according to the Star Tribune.

In 2008, the Minnesota Legislature increased gasoline taxes by 8.5 cents per gallon, to 47 cents:  That’s six or seven cents higher than Iowa and North Dakota, and four cents lower than Wisconsin.

But that and higher license tab fees in 2008 caused “barely a blip on the screen” as far as meeting the need, Kuisle said.

Highway construction costs are going up because of “cost drivers” such as the cost of crude oil used to make asphalt and fuel needed to run the big construction equipment, he said.

But up to 20 percent of highway project costs can be due to things like wetland replacement, archeological surveys, and rare species audits, Kuisle said, and he believes by reforming its rules the state could shave money off those costs.

For example, in the past Kuisle has suggested a lower ratio for replacing wetlands affected by highway construction. Wetlands now have to be replaced at a 2-to-1 ratio, and he said a 1.2-to-1 ratio would save money.

Similarly, the state should focus on improving its bus service and drop light rail, commuter rail and high-speed rail projects, which he called “sexy and expensive,” and not a good use of state transportation dollars.

On other issues, Kuisle said the state can improve its business tax climate by reducing the new top tier income tax imposed by the DFL-controlled Legislature.

“That upper income tax is going to hurt Minnesota in the long run … You can’t consistently raise the income taxes on the upper-income and expect them to stay in Minnesota,” he said. “I don’t think you can improve the business climate in Minnesota without improving business taxes.”

Regarding Local Government Aid, he said funding is uneven among cities because the program is politicized and “we need to continually look at it to see if any changes are needed.”

On the employment front, state higher education needs to do a better job of training students to fill well-paying jobs, often in manufacturing.

“It seems like we need to do something on the state level, something isn’t happening so that employers can fill jobs,” he said.

Republican primary voters should check the Johnson-Kuisle ticket because “we have a unique background,” Kuisle said. “Our expertise, mine is in transportation, taxes and agriculture, Jeff grew up in rural Minnesota and is now a Hennepin County commissioner, that’s a unique blend.”

He declined to compare Johnson’s governing style to either Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin or former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, saying he’s unique.

 “Jeff comes across as the guy next door, he can talk about our message and not scare the heck out of everybody,” Kuisle said with a laugh.