Emmer, DFLers skirmish over budget, biofuels at Farmfest

Margaret Anderson Kelliher
DFL-endorsed candidate for governor Margaret Anderson Kelliher speaks with a man at Farmfest in Redwood Falls, Minn., on Wednesday, August 4, 2010.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

The three Democratic candidates for governor took aim at Republican Tom Emmer on Wednesday, using a forum at Farmfest near Redwood Falls to criticize Emmer's no-taxes pledge as short-sighted.

Former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton also said Emmer doesn't have a firm handle on a state budget deficit if the Republican Party's endorsed candidate is suggesting tax breaks when Minnesota is facing such a large budget deficit. Dayton also criticized Emmer for recently suggesting that the state phase out aid to local governments.

"Anyone who thinks that a proposal to eliminate local government aids and county aids and to reduce state funding for education is not going to result in higher property taxes for farmers and everyone else does not understand the basic fiscal realities in the state of Minnesota," Dayton said.

Dayton, and the two other Democrats, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and former state Rep. Matt Entenza, all want to raise income taxes on Minnesota's top earners to help balance the budget. Entenza said failing to raise revenues means greater property tax increases at the local level.

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"The no new taxes that we've seen coming out of Gov. Pawlenty with Tom's help have not been helping the farms here in southwest Minnesota," Entenza said. "They've been helping the mansions around Lake Minnetonka. Those are the folks who have been holding the big tax breaks and getting the big tax breaks."

The Farmfest forum marked the first time Emmer has taken the stage with his DFL opponents since January. Even though he has not released any details of his plan to address a projected $6 billon deficit in the next biennium, Emmer boldly told the audience of roughly 1,000 people that he's the only candidate who is talking about cutting taxes -- not raising them.

Farmfest is a good chance for politicians to show that they have a solid grasp of rural issues -- knowledge that may be even more important this year because none of the candidates for governor lives in rural Minnesota. The forum focused mostly on agricultural issues but also touched on other key areas such as education, health care and taxes.

Tom Emmer
Republican candidate for governor Tom Emmer speaks with United Farm Credit Services president Marc Knisely before a forum at Farmfest in Redwood Falls, Minn., on Wednesday, August 4, 2010.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Emmer said he wants to consolidate all state oversight of agriculture and farm issues to one agency.

"If we are your governor, I will work with you to take every enforcement and regulatory agency that touches on agriculture -- whether it be the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the DNR, you name it -- and put them under the Department of Agriculture" Emmer said. "Because guess what? They have to work for the farmers, with the farmers instead of against agriculture."

Kelliher and Dayton said Emmer's plan would go too far and could give too much power to one agency.

The Democrats clearly wanted to keep the forum focused on the state budget. Kelliher tried to link state spending to school funding -- saying school districts across Minnesota are being forced to cut back.

Matt Entenza
DFL candidate for governor Matt Entenza speaks during a debate at Farmfest in Redwood Falls, Minn., on Wednesday, August 4, 2010.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

"There are not enough book sales and bake sales and wrapping paper sales in this state to raise the amount of money that we need," she said.

But Emmer and Independence Party candidate Rob Hahn both argued that more money for schools isn't the only answer when it comes to improving education. Emmer talked about giving parents more choice in education -- code words for giving vouchers to parents who put their students in private schools. Hahn said he thinks the state's teacher's union is slowing progress toward improving education.

"We have to adapt," Hahn said. "Things change and unfortunately the union has not. Education Minnesota has been a roadblock over and over when it comes to changing our school systems."

On agricultural issues, all of the candidates said they aren't willing to increase regulation on livestock or pesticide use. Hahn and Tom Horner, the other Independence Party candidate, said they oppose state subsidies for ethanol and other biofuels. Horner said he would phase the subsidies out.

Tom Horner
Independence candidate for governor Tom Horner speaks during a debate at Farmfest in Redwood Falls, Minn., on Wednesday, August 4, 2010.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

"Look, we have a $6 billion shortfall," Horner said. "Let's be realistic. Everybody up here says 'We're going to cut government. We're going to make government smaller' and no one says 'Here's where we're going to start.' I do think we need to transition away from the subsidy for ethanol."

Dayton, Entenza and Kelliher all say they're committed to preserving the subsidy at least until it is scheduled to run out in 2013. Dayton said he considers it a national security and environmental issue.

"You know, there's never been an ethanol spill in the Gulf of Mexico that has destroyed the ecology of that part of this country the way it has this summer so we have all sorts of reasons economic and ecological to move to biofuels," Dayton said.

Kelliher criticized Emmer for voting against biofuels subsidies in the past. Emmer later said he voted for and against the subsidies because he doesn't like adding government regulations. He said he's willing to support the current direct payments for ethanol through 2013 but did not commit to future payments.

Mark Dayton
DFL candidate for governor Mark Dayton speaks during a debate at Farmfest in Redwood Falls, Minn., on Wednesday, August 4, 2010.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Before next week's primary, the DFL candidates have one more forum scheduled, a Minnesota Public Radio debate Sunday night in St. Paul.