After saying up until this point in his re-election campaign that he had no plans to raise taxes in a second term, Gov. Mark Dayton said Wednesday night he would propose putting a sales tax on gasoline to raise money for road and bridge projects.
He floated the idea right at the start of the second debate with his two challengers, Republican Jeff Johnson and Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet, when the candidates were asked for specifics about what they would do if elected.
"I'll make a specific proposal that will include a sales tax on gasoline that will raise close to the $6.5 billion that we're short for transportation funding over the next 10 years," the DFLer said.
The governor has said in the past that Minnesota can't maintain its current transportation system without new revenue, but he's never outlined a specific plan. He's also said anyone suggesting transportation needs can be met with existing funds isn't being honest.
Johnson and Nicollet disagreed, saying they think they can find money in the existing budget.
Johnson said the state should dedicate more money to road and bridge projects by focusing less on trains and bike lanes. He criticized Dayton for not making transportation a priority during the last four years.
"We had the biggest tax increase in state history and we're saying we don't have enough money to fill potholes. That's nuts," Johnson said. "All of the focus, all of the energy on transportation these last couple of years has been on everything but roads and bridges."
Nicollet said she thinks the too much of the state's transportation funding focus has been on light rail at the expense of roads and bridges. However, she said she'd be willing to raise the gas tax if she can't find the money elsewhere.
Transportation was just one of the issues where the three candidates disagreed during the ninety minute debate.
On the budget, Johnson said that if he's elected he'd hire an outside auditor to look at ways to cut spending. He also suggested he'd cut Dayton's income tax increase and the state's corporate income tax but hasn't provided specifics about how he would make up for the lost revenue. Instead, he said his tax plan would be "low, broad and simple."
"The key word of those three is 'low.' They're too high in this state and you can look at almost any of the taxes and they're probably too high," Johnson said. "I would start by looking at the corporate tax and the income tax but also following up to see if there's anything we need to change on the sales tax or the property tax."
"Low, broad and simple is not a tax policy. It's a slogan," Dayton retorted. "Tell us tomorrow, whenever, where you're going to cut $1.2 billion -- real money -- from the state budget. Education? Human Services? Health Care. Because you want to repeal that tax increase on the rich. Tell us where you're going to make the cuts."
Nicollet said she'd eliminate the state's corporate tax to help encourage businesses to invest in Minnesota.
On education, Nicollet and Johnson criticized Dayton for not placing a greater priority on rural school districts. Johnson said Minneapolis receives more state aid than rural schools. He said he'd work to change what he called a complicated state funding formula.
"I've got a bias when it comes to K-12 education funding: to move as much money to that per pupil formula as possible so that a student is a student," Johnson said. He also advocated for more school choice and for a law that allows parents to vote to leave struggling schools.
Dayton said his budget pays for statewide all day kindergarten and that he increased funding for schools. He criticized Johnson for cutting school spending during his time as a legislator.
"Your record doesn't support your concern for education except you go back to the same tired proposals that have been around for the past decade like vouchers and parental triggers," Dayton said.
Johnson said school funding went up when he was in the legislature. In 2003, however, he voted to freeze the funding formula and made cuts to some programs outside the regular classroom such as Early Childhood and Family Education.
The three candidates also disagreed over funding for the Vikings stadium. Nicollet said the $1 billion stadium, passed under Dayton's leadership, should not have been a priority.
"When I see us paying for a stadium, I think we must have all of our needs taken care of, right? And yet half of our roads are over 50 years old and in need of repair," she said.
Johnson also said the stadium deal was mishandled suggesting Dayton bungled it.
"The whole thing has been a debacle," Johnson said. "Governor, you not knowing that there were seat licenses in there [the stadium funding package] and expressing outrage at that, even though it was in a bill that you signed, to the fact that we didn't know that the Wilfs had legal problems when we signed that bill. And of course the funding. It's been a disaster from the start."
Dayton defended the stadium. He said the NFL and Vikings owners threatened to move the team if they didn't get a new stadium. He said he got the best deal for the state.
"Tell the 7,500 people that are going to be working on this project and are now, 38 percent of whom are men and women of color, that this project is a debacle," Dayton said. "It's easy to sit on the sidelines, having had nothing to do with it, and take potshots. The fact is we didn't dictate this agreement. The Vikings held the upper hand."
All three candidates expressed support for a new oil pipeline to run across Minnesota to help alleviate the number of oil trains coming across the state from North Dakota. But they disagree on the details. Dayton said he supports the Sandpiper pipeline in theory, but said it first needs a thorough review by the Public Utilities Commission.
"The pipeline proposed by Enbridge goes through some of the most ecologically sensitive and inaccessible areas of northwestern and northern Minnesota. So people who want to say speed it up and ram it through so we can satisfy people who want to transfer oil through Minnesota and make money from the East Coast, is not something that I would agree to," he said.
"Well, governor, you can't say you want it to happen because your administration is trying to kill it," Johnson said, adding that Dayton's appointees to the Public Utilities Commission are the reason the pipeline has been delayed."
"We do have a process to get through, but it seems like we are slow walking the process in order to kill it," Johnson said.
Dayton bristled at Johnson's characterization, saying he has no say over the decisions PUC commissioners make after he appoints them to their six year terms.
Johnson and Dayton did agree that they would oppose legalizing marijuana. Nicollet, however, supports it. She said the state spends too much money punishing people for nonviolent drug offenses.
"It's a waste of resources. The societal cost is too much. We spend $456 million on our prison system in Minnesota. To the extent that anybody is sitting in a cage for a nonviolent drug offenses, that is a waste of a cage," Nicollet said.
The candidates are scheduled to debate again next week in Duluth.