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DL native Jeff Johnson and Tim Walz talk differences in race for governor

Minnesota governor candidates Democrat Tim Walz, left, and Republican Jeff Johnson debate Friday, Aug. 31, 2018, at the Minnesota State Fair. The event was organized by Minnesota Public Radio. Dave Orrick / St. Paul Pioneer Press

FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn.—Minnesota's governor race got real at the State Fair, the location where the public begins to notice election campaigns.

Democrat Tim Walz and Republican Jeff Johnson laid out their differences—such as on spending, taxes, health care and guns—sharper than ever Friday, Aug. 31, during a Minnesota Public Radio-sponsored debate.

Johnson was especially tough during the nearly hour-long event.

The Hennepin County commissioner said Walz has promised to increase the state budget in at least 40 places. "You are the greatest feel-good candidate I have ever seen."

Walz, a U.S. representative serving southern Minnesota, said that was "factually incorrect," but said he wants to talk to people involved with state programs before deciding what needs more money.

Johnson has promised tax cuts, Walz said, which would cut programs and, thus, hurt Minnesotans.

Walz neither promised any tax cuts nor offered specific support for any increases. However, he did repeat that he would consider a gasoline tax increase if, after looking at the budget, it appears needed.

Deciding where to spend state money is one of the biggest jobs of a governor, and was the big issue Friday.

"I don't know a single area I'd increase spending," Johnson said. "We need to measure programs for effectiveness."

Johnson indicated he may find places in the human services budget to cut, saying his priority would be on helping poor people and providing public safety services.

Walz, a former teacher, said the state needs to invest in education, but gave no specific amount of money.

"We have been wringing our hands and spending a lot of money on it," Johnson said. "But nothing changes."

Walz said it is critical for the state to shrink an education gap between white and minority students because in a few years 25 percent of the state's workforce will be from communities of color.

Johnson said he wanted a tax on health care providers to end in 2020 as now planned. Walz said he would continue it to help fund health programs. He advocates using the tax for prevention programs.

"It makes sense to get people fixed on the front end rather than treating them on the back end," the congressman said.

But Johnson viewed keeping the tax, which opponents like to call "the sick tax," as a $700 million tax increase.

The GOP candidate said Minnesota spends twice as much on human services programs as other states, and the state does not audit its programs to see which ones actually provide help to those who need it.

Walz did not say more money is needed, but emphasized that he has spent a dozen years in Congress, with an emphasis on improving veterans' health care.

The candidates agreed that one change the state should make is to allow Minnesotans a better idea about what medical care and prescription drugs would cost.

After the brief agreement, the pair went back to their separate corners and separate philosophies.

Johnson repeated his declaration that he cannot support any new gun regulations. It is not guns that endanger students and others, he said, but lack of mental health, family breakdowns and other factors that need attention.

The Republican, who said he would consider allowing local school districts to let properly trained teachers carry guns, also pointed out that the National Rifle Association has dropped Walz' ranking from A to Z in one year.

Walz said he used to take a gun with him when driving to school so he could go hunting after classes. He is a 24-year National Guard veteran who says he is a good shot.

But things change over time, Walz said. Now, he added, he supports background checks on all guns being sold and laws to remove guns from people who could be dangerous. He also said he opposes allowing people to use "bump stocks," which essentially turn semi-automatic rifles into machine guns.

Plus, Walz said, he opposes allowing teachers to carry guns.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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