Following a poll this week that shows a tightening race for governor, the three major party candidates on Friday took harder shots at each other on policy differences.
During a State Fair debate sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio, Democrat Mark Dayton, Republican Tom Emmer and the Independence Party's Tom Horner took turns defending their own views on taxes and state spending. Before a rowdy and standing-room-only crowd, each offered harsh critiques of their rivals.
Right off the bat, Emmer defended his view that next year's projected $5.8 billion state budget deficit is simply a result of government spending run amok. He repeated his promise not to raise taxes, while criticizing Dayton's proposal to increase income taxes on the wealthy and Horner's proposed sales tax expansion.
"Government needs to budget within what it has," Emmer said. "Set your priorities. Then purchase those priorities, those core services, with the money you have -- instead of taking the attitude government always takes, which is, 'What do we want? And then you all have to just pay more so we can buy it.'"
Dayton shot back, challenging Emmer to come forward with a budget-balancing plan as detailed as his or Horner's. The Democratic nominee added it was hypocritical for Emmer to criticize other candidates without offering an alternative plan to put government revenue and spending in line.
"There's no popular way. These are unpopular realities that one of us is going to inherit," said Dayton. "With 60 days left in this campaign, it's important that you give the people of Minnesota the facts about how you're going to eliminate that deficit."
Emmer later said his plan is coming soon, but Horner said voters want to see that plan now. Horner highlighted his own proposals to reduce taxes on small businesses, and to lower the state sales tax rate.
Horner's plan to expand the sales tax to some now-exempt purchases didn't go over well with fairgoers, but he stuck to it.
"We need to have the revenue to invest in a better Minnesota," Horner said. "I would I extend the sales tax to clothing and to some personal services, while exempting food and medical services. Because that's the way we're going to have a better Minnesota. I understand that it's not popular, but you know what? Leadership is willing to put yourself out there to say, this is what Minnesota needs."
The contentious debate came just three days after an MPR News/Humphrey Institute poll showed Dayton and Emmer locked in a neck-and-neck race for governor, each with about 34 percent support. Emmer polled 13 percent, and 19 percent of respondents said they are undecided.
The frontrunners butted heads on other issues, from anti-bullying legislation to federal health care money. But they kept returning to taxes.
Emmer took issue with Dayton's income tax proposal again, when the Dayton explained how he would use that new revenue for public schools.
"I will increase state funding for public education every year I'm governor. No excuses, no exceptions," said Dayton.
"Sen. Dayton, that sounds great," Emmer responded. "But under the plan that you've provided, it appears that in order to get to the revenues that you want to generate out of Minnesotans, you're going to have to raise the tax rate to 17 or 18 percent. How high are you willing to go?"
Dayton responded that he would not make Minnesota the state with the highest tax rate in the country, and again challenged Emmer to produce a plan.
When Horner also took aim at Dayton's tax plan, the former senator asked why someone making "a million, or $5 million or $10 million a year" shouldn't pay more taxes to help solve the state's deficit.
Horner saw an opening, reminding Dayton that his proposal would affect couples with a taxable income of $150,000. Horner said the proposed increase would hit working families, not just the rich. But he heard disagreeing boos from the crowd when he suggested nurses and teachers make $150,000.
Emmer offered a similar defense of working families, telling Dayton that his plan was "the same message we've been hearing for decades in this state, and it's not working."
"Every time government runs out of money, you go back to the hardworking men and women of this state, you go to the businesses of this state, and you simply tell them to pony up more money," Emmer said.
Despite their philosophical differences, all three candidates claimed they could work effectively with their political opponents if elected governor.
With the MPR poll showing his support at 13 percent, Horner faces an uphill climb. But he challenged the debate audience to be bold voters if they want bold leadership. The former public relations executive also said he wouldn't have to spend a long time in the governor's office.
"This isn't a stepping stone to something else," Horner said. "This is a capstone for me and my career as a Minnesotan. And if being a political lightning rod means that we get Minnesota moving forward, but the consequences are I don't get elected to a second term, I'm OK with that."
This was the eighth time since last month's primary election that Dayton, Emmer and Horner have faced off on the same stage. The next gubernatorial debate is scheduled Tuesday in Duluth.