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Lt. governor candidate: Minnesota needs to address its '$6 billion problem'

Minnesota voters have voiced a "real frustration" with a lack of state government effectiveness in recent years, a candidate for lieutenant governor told the Herald.

Jim Mulder stopped in Grand Forks today, part of his travels around northwestern Minnesota to speak with local leaders and reporters, to discuss how he and Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner would address the state's biggest issues.

He said people are frustrated because "politics has gotten in the way of governance" as state leaders delay making the "hard decisions" to address concerns about the budget.

But that also ups the chances of third-party candidates getting an Election Day victory, Mulder said.

"The ideologues that are on the left and on the right, we think that they've created a huge opportunity in the center," he said. "I think people are listening and saying, 'You know, maybe we just need some folks that are practical.'"

The budget

Mulder said the most pressing issue now facing Minnesota is the state budget, which is projected to have a $5.8 billion shortfall in the next biennium which begins July 1, 2011.

He called it the "$6 billion problem," a big concern considering the state expects to take in about $34 billion in revenue.

"That's a huge problem for a state, and it's a huge problem when people think there are all those things that you can cut," he said.

But 80 percent of state funding is spent on higher education, K-12 education and health and human services programs -- which Mulder said shows there aren't many easy budget cuts that can be made.

He said they want to protect education, but all other programs will need to be looked at and redesigned to find ways of streamlining or eliminating services to balance the budget. They're aiming for $1.5 billion to $2 billion in cuts, and Mulder said they will release a full budget plan in September.

But cuts alone won't do it. Mulder said raising taxes will also "need to be part of the solution."

Ultimately, he said the state needs to fix one big budgetary problem beyond the forecast shortfall. The state's revenue grows about 3 percent each year, but spending increases by about 5 percent.

That sets up continuing problems in the future unless it can be addressed.

"If you can fix that, then we're going to be better off," he said. "That's our No. 1 issue is to balance the budget."

The election

Before they could work on the main issues, Mulder and Horner need to pull off two election victories.

The first is beating out the four other Independence Party candidates who will be on the Aug. 10 primary ballot: Rob Hahn, Phil Ratte, John T. Uldrich and Rahn V. Workcuff.

Horner picked up the party's endorsement in May but will have to win in the primary to advance to the Nov. 2 general election ballot.

If successful, they would face the winning DFL candidate: Mark Dayton, Matt Entenza, Peter Idusogie or endorsee Margaret Anderson Kelliher.

Tom Emmer has the Republican Party's endorsement, but he needs to defeat Bob Carney Jr., Leslie Davis and Ole Savior in the primary to advance to November.

A Rasmussen Reports poll released Wednesday showed Horner trailing Emmer and all three of the top DFL candidates in a hypothetical matchup, with Horner drawing only 10 percent to 12 percent of voters' support compared with 35 percent to 40 percent support for the other candidates.

But Mulder said other sources say they're at about 20 percent right now, and he figures a quarter of residents who identify with the major parties "aren't real satisfied with the candidates" on the ballot.

They aim to get about 38 percent of the November votes by targeting people "in the middle," a total Emmer said likely would be enough for victory this fall.

"We think we can do that by looking for those folks who are frustrated with the way things are going," he said.

He's "very confident" that they can win the primary, and Mulder said he's becoming "more and more confident" about a victory in the fall. He said voters aren't too engaged in the race right now, but people will soon begin to see differences between his campaign and the other candidates.

"Tom Horner is going to be making decisions that position Minnesota to be competitive," he said. "I think the other candidates would be making decisions to get to the next election."