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Republican candidates spar at MPR debate

The Republican candidates for Minnesota governor came out swinging in a broadcast debate Wednesday, arguing over idealistic visions versus the practical realities of running a divided state government.

First-time candidate Scott Honour said he would make the biggest and boldest cuts in state spending, prompting Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson to accuse him of making unrealistic campaign promises during the four-man exchange on Minnesota Public Radio.

Less than two weeks before the Aug. 12 GOP primary, Honour, Johnson, former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert and former House Speaker Rep. Kurt Zellers engaged in their most vigorous exchange of the campaign season during the hourlong show. The winner will take on Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Mark Dayton in November.

When Honour, an Orono businessman, said he is pushing for the deepest spending reductions, Johnson, the Republican-endorsed candidate, responded that they all would cut spending.

“The difference is, I have a philosophical difference here (with) you calling for a 10 percent across-the-board cut …”

Honour interrupted, saying, “10 percent in administrative expenses …”

“Well,” Johnson continued, “I’ve seen it reported much more broadly as a 10 percent across-the-board cut in state spending. I don’t think that’s either realistic or wise.”

He argued against cutting the things “government should do” and those services it does well.

Insisting he could reduce costs quickly, Honour criticized Johnson for saying he wouldn’t be able to make big budget reductions in his first two years in office. “We don’t have that time,” he said, calling for quickly changing what’s wrong with state government.

But Johnson said it’s better to be honest with voters about what’s possible when DFLers will still control the state Senate for at least the next two years. Predicting it will take a Republican governor that long to enact real change, he said, “Anyone who understands government understands that’s how it’s going to work.”

Seifert jumped in on the side of immediate budget cuts. “We’re going to downsize, right-size and economize government in Minnesota starting on day one,” he said.

Zellers sidestepped the debate over the timing of budget cuts. But he said that while he was speaker in 2011-12, “We passed a budget that cut the size of government by six percent, reduced the cost of government by eight percent.”

Seifert disputed those figures. “I would have vetoed the budget that Kurt Zellers passed in 2011,” he said, contending it didn’t reform or reduce the size of government enough and borrowed too much money.

The four also clashed over public employee collective bargaining rights.

Earlier this year, Johnson said he wants “to go all Scott Walker on Minnesota,” referring to the Wisconsin governor who stripped that state’s government employee unions of most of their bargaining powers.

On Wednesday, he said Walker moved too quickly. While he wants to eventually ban public employees from being required to pay union dues, Johnson said he first wants to “start a conversation” about how to do it.

“Jeff, I think you’ve got a defeatist attitude here,” Honour responded. “That’s the problem with people who have spent too much time in St. Paul. We need to take this on.”

He accused Education Minnesota, the teachers union, of “working actively against the interests of students and parents.”

Seifert, a former teacher, said he would not strip public employees of their right to bargain collectively. But he would like to see union membership made voluntary.

Zellers, whose wife is a teacher, said school districts should not require union dues from teachers.

After being the target of most of the verbal shots during the debate, Johnson said he believes he’s ahead in the GOP race and expected the other candidates to start “going after” him more aggressively. He said he will continue to focus on Dayton.

Honour, probably the least-known contender, said his aim was to “make sure voters have a chance to know what I’m about … I’d push a bold agenda.”

Seifert called the vigorous debate healthy. “Contrast is a good thing,” he said.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.