The three major-party candidates for governor all renewed their pledge Thursday night to increase funding for early childhood education, if elected.
Democrat Mark Dayton, Republican Tom Emmer, and the Independence Party's Tom Horner focused on education issues during a debate at the studios of Twin Cities Public Television in St. Paul.
While Emmer will hold education spending flat with no tax hikes, Dayton and Horner want to boost both education spending and revenue. Dayton would raise income taxes on Minnesotans with the highest incomes; Horner wants to lower the state sales tax but apply it to more items, which would garner a net gain.
All three candidates touted what several studies also have in the past -- that spending more on early childhood education will garner better returns, academically and even economically.
That's why all three have pledged to spend more, though Republican Tom Emmer and Democrat Mark Dayton aren't saying by how much. Independence Party nominee Tom Horner has said his budget would include $120 million more for all education spending, including early childhood.
Horner called Emmer's current stance hypocritical, noting votes he's made as a state representative against increased funding for early childhood education.
Emmer defended the votes, saying they're consistent with his pledge to not raise taxes and keep state spending within its means.
"I'm the only one sitting up here right now that's got seven kids; and I've got five of them still in school," Emmer said. "This is a big deal to somebody like me ... when I vote against something like that, it's difficult. But you've got to look at the big picture.
Emmer said that government does not need to grow more like it's been for years, but instead be more responsible. Emmer said he'd pay for the extra spending on early childhood by reducing other state child care funding.
The GOP lawmaker also said he won't promise to increase the state's budget for all K-12 spending, the way Horner and Dayton have. He plans to budget the same amount of money for schools next year that they're getting this year.
Dayton said flat spending presents two problems: It doesn't account for inflation or the fact that there will be an estimated 20,000 more children attending Minnesota schools in two years.
"If you're going to keep the same level of funding and we're going to have 20,000 more school children in our public schools by the end of the biennium, you're going to have less money per pupil; you're going to have overcrowded classrooms," Dayton said.
Dayton also said Emmer's no-tax pledge is insincere because it will only force higher property taxes when school districts and local governments raise their levies to offset state cuts.
For school leaders, a big issue this year is when the candidates would plan to start paying back a $1.4 billion payment delay the Pawlenty administration made this year to balance the state's books. Emmer and Horner would wait at least two years. Horner said it would be irresponsible to commit to repaying districts in such a budget climate.
"The reality is, the money's not there, and we can't pay it back without doing serious harm to the economy," Horner said.
Horner said the state can't afford higher taxes to pay back the schools immediately or for the state to cut deeper.
Dayton, though, said he wants to include the payback in his first budget as governor, even though his latest budget proposal still has a deficit.
The former DFL senator also was criticized for releasing an education plan this week that only lists goals -- like funding all-day kindergarten across Minnesota -- but without any cost estimates. Dayton said the list will only be funded as money becomes available, but voters should know his priorities.