In the first debate on commercial television of the 2010 governor's race, the three major party candidates worked hard to distinguish themselves from their opponents. At various times during the confrontation on Fox9, all three candidates worked to portray their two opponents as having the same policies.
Republican Tom Emmer said Democrat Mark Dayton and the Independence Party's Tom Horner are both relying on tax hikes to fix a projected budget deficit of nearly $6 billion.
"You simply can't sustain this type of spending," Emmer said. "Even if you agree with the billions of dollars in taxes that these two gentlemen want to raise, what are you going to do two years from now when you're faced with another 20 percent growth in government?"
Emmer's budget plan relies on actual cuts in state spending for higher education, state aid to cities and state agencies. He's also proposed cutting the expected rate of growth in Health and Human Services programs and K-12 education. But he has not released any specific details about which programs he would cut.
Democrat Mark Dayton said Emmer's plan would cause local governments to increase property taxes. He also said Horner's plan would hit all Minnesotans. Horner has proposed to lower the overall sales tax rate, but expand it to clothing and services that Horner has yet to specify.
Dayton said "both of them will raise taxes on the middle class by either increasing the sales tax or by increasing property taxes. I will protect the middle class, and raise taxes only on those who can afford to pay a little more."
Dayton is pushing a tax plan that relies heavily on increasing income taxes on Minnesota's top earners. He wants to increase the rate to 10.95 percent for individuals with a taxable income of at least $130,000 a year and couples with a taxable income of $150,000 a year or more.
For his part, Horner again tried to claim the position as the moderate candidate. He said Emmer's plan to cut government and Dayton's tax hikes are both out of line with mainstream Minnesotans.
"The fact is we're not going to solve the budget problem, we're not going to grow the economy, we're not going to create new jobs with a bumper-sticker slogan here, any more than we are with a bumper sticker slogan there," Horner said.
The debate, which was held at Hamline University in St. Paul, also tackled higher education. All three candidates were asked what they would do make college more affordable for all Minnesota students.
Horner said he didn't think the governor could realistically address the issue in the tough budget times, but outlined a longer-term vision of allowing high school students to take more college-level coursework.
Emmer said he wants higher education institutions to be more efficient. Dayton said he wanted to make college education "more affordable again," but didn't offer specifics. He also complained that too many students are relying on "loans, loans and more loans."
That comment prompted Emmer to criticize Dayton for not understanding the problems students are facing.
"I don't know that if you ever had a loan," Emmer said to Dayton, who is heir to the Dayton Hudson Department store fortune. "I did. I paid my way through college and I paid my way through law school."
Dayton, who has spent more than $3 million of his own money on the race for governor, shot back that Emmer's plan actually cuts state funding for higher education.
"The issue isn't whether I've ever taken a loan," said Dayton. "The issue is whether our policies, yours and mine, are going to cause students and parents to take out more loans. And yours will."
The candidates have debated 15 times since the August 10 primary, and are slated for several more before Election Day on Nov. 2. All three will discuss children's issues at a debate on Monday. On Tuesday morning, the candidates are scheduled to take part in a two-hour debate on MPR's Midmorning program.