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Gubernatorial candidates blast budget during Beltrami County DFL fundraiser

BEMIDJI - What do five Democrat candidates for governor in 2010 all have in common? A dislike of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget policies.

Pawlenty's budget for the next two-year state budget cycle "is a house of cards," says Senate Taxes Committee Chairman Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. "He is proposing the balance the budget with a significant amount of one-time money that does nothing to balance the budget in the out years to get the state's fiscal house in order."

"The wealthy have gotten away with armed robbery," says former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton. "The wealthiest 10 percent pay less of their incomes in state and local taxes than the next 60 percent."

That Pawlenty won't raise taxes "even one penny," Dayton said, "is a disgrace."

Bakk and Dayton were joined by former Minnesota House Minority Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul, Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaernter and Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis at the Beltrami County DFL's annual Presidents Day fundraiser at the Bemidji Eagles Club.

About 125 people ate roast beef sandwiches and had the rare opportunity to listen to five gubernatorial hopefuls at the same time for an election nearly two years away. The five are either in the race or have formed exploratory campaigns.

Entenza, the architect of the 2004 takeover of the Minnesota House that included former Assistant House Majority Leader Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, said Minnesota needs that same strategy to elect the first Democratic governor since 1986.

"In 2004 we said we had a vision of where we want to take the state," said Entenza, now founder and chairman of Minnesota 2020, a progressive think tank. "Tim Pawlenty has a vision, and if we don't present our vision, we're not going to win."

Entenza said his vision includes core issues of getting jobs and moving the economy forward. "Is Beltrami and Hubbard counties and the whole area going to slowly slide backwards? I believe the way forward is to marry environmental justice and economic justice and put them together."

Minnesota should be the Silicone Valley of alternative energy and clean technology, he said. "We can create thousands and thousands of jobs in this area when we harness up wind power," Entenza said. "We should be making wind power here in Beltrami County."

Investing in education will also put Minnesota ahead, he said, as a well-educated workforce will attract business. Currently, the teacher union Education Minnesota ranked Minnesota schools a "C".

"My platform is this: it's about alternative energy; it's about economic development. It's about reinvesting in education, and it's making sure everyone has access to health care," Entenza said.

Four-term Ramsey County Attorney Gaertner says she's framing her campaign around leadership, which she says Pawlenty lacks.

Government has a very important and powerful role in helping people most at risk, particularly children, she said, adding that she's running because of a lack of leadership in the governor's office.

College tuition is no longer affordable, Gaertner said. "How do we expect our kids to compete when education costs are so high?"

Levy referendum struggles have crippled school districts, she said. Her youngest daughter, a high school senior, spent last spring going door to door to solicit votes for a White Bear Lake referendum vote.

"When Hannah went door to door selling Girl Scout cookies, I was fine with that," Gaertner said. "But I wasn't so fine with her going door to door selling taxpayers on the idea that we need to properly fund education."

Instead, "it's the governor's job to lead on the issue of proper funding of education," she said.

Health care is "another issue with a complete lack of leadership from the governor's office," Gaertner said. "We can't have health care changes that nibble around the edges. ... We need bold leadership from the governor's office that every person in our community is entitled to universal, affordable health care."

Environment and jobs also need to be molded together for the better of Minnesota, she said. "We need to quit pitting environmentalists against people who want to make an honest living at a good job."

As county attorney, she said she's learned a lot about what happens to children and families "if you don't make those investments."

Thissen, who chairs a House health and human services panel, said that "we need a new governor in Minnesota."

"One of the things that I'm most passionate about is making sure that all Minnesotans, particularly kids, ... get access to a doctor when they need it,"said Thissen, adding that his committee will hold hearings next week on a bill providing a single-payer health care system.

"It's unacceptable in this state that we have 85,000 kids and hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans without health care," he said.

Minnesota's promise is a unique one, he said, and it angers him that as he travels the state, the gap is widening.

"It also makes me really angry to go down to the Capitol and sit there and watch Gov. Pawlenty deliberately and methodically try to dismantle those very public institutions and public policies that have really laid the foundation for Minnesota's promise."

The direction the state is headed under Pawlenty "is inconsistent with our values of our state. ... It's those fundamental values that we need to get back to in our state government -- hard work, inventiveness and innovation but also a commitment to do things the right way and to build things that last and won't so easily break when we get to tough times like we are facing now."

Thissen said he would bring to the office a trademark of his legislative service, not to back away from any issue: health care, retirement security, closing the achievement gap in education.

"Reasonable people make good governors, and that's the kind of leadership I'd bring," Thissen said.

Bakk said Pawlenty's budget proposal cuts funding for Minnesota's most vulnerable and cuts state aid to cities, but more importantly it leaves a $2.5 billion budget gap for the following biennium that lawmakers will face in two years.

"Under this governor's leadership, we're just going to manage from one fiscal crisis to another," Bakk said. "He describes it as starving the beast, that somehow government is bad."

The budget crisis can't be resolved without some new revenue, he said. "We have to go back and revisit some of those tax cuts that were made (in the 1990s)and scrutinize the state budget and see where we can find some savings and some efficiencies."

Raising taxes on the wealthy is not raising taxes on all Minnesotans, said Dayton, who also served a stint as state auditor.

"The wealthiest in this state and nation need to pay their fair share of taxes," he said. That money can be used, for example, to return some school districts to five-day weeks rather than the four-day weeks they now have to save money.

"We need to restore the commitment in Minnesota to the public services that we need," Dayton said. "It's a tax increase on the people. who can afford to pay it. It's simple economic and social justice.

"We need a social and economic justice or Minnesota doesn't stand for what it used to stand for," Dayton said.

Moe, fresh off the sled dog trail, read a letter from former Sen. Steve Kelley, another gubernatorial hopeful.

"Any one of these candidates would be far better than the one we have now," Moe said. "Maintaining the status quo -- that's not what this is about."