Governor candidates spar over economy, MNsure

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The debate
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, Republican candidate Jeff Johnson and Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet participate in the first Minnesota gubernatorial debate of 2014 held in Rochester, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014.
Alex Kolyer / For MPR News

No candidate seemed to land a knockout punch in the first debate in the race for governor Wednesday night.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, Republican Jeff Johnson and Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet sparred over several issues, including the state of the economy.

Related: Listen to the gubernatorial debate in Rochester

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Dayton said the state's economy is improving. "We have spending under control," he said. "We have made new investments in education, higher education, in early childhood and all-day kindergarten. We have strong, robust employment growth with 160,000 new jobs in which to grow further."

Dayton also said he didn't see a reason to raise taxes in a second term.

Johnson said the state's economy is lagging, citing recent federal statistics showing Minnesota's rate of new job creation from March of 2013 to March of this year the lowest of any Midwest state. He also said too many people are underemployed. "That all directly relates to our taxing and regulatory, and in some cases, our spending policies in this state," he said. "You are going to see me work hard to reform our taxes."

Debate crowd
The crowd listens to the candidates at the first Minnesota gubernatorial debate of 2014 held in Rochester, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014.
Alex Kolyer / For MPR News

Johnson said he would make the state's taxes low, broad and simple but didn't provide specifics. Nicollet did. She said she would eliminate the state's corporate income tax. "I would expect that then we would actually grow revenue because if you make it cheaper to have a business in your state, businesses want to come to your state," she said.

The candidates also sparred over MNsure, the state's health insurance exchange. Johnson criticized Dayton for the botched rollout of MNsure's website and for increased health care costs.

IP candidate Hannah Nicollet
Republican candidate Jeff Johnson listens to Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet speak during the first Minnesota gubernatorial debate of 2014 held in Rochester, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014.
Alex Kolyer / For MPR News

"Governor, you had a press conference today and you said you don't lose any sleep over MNsure and we should celebrate it," Johnson said. "I lose sleep over MNsure and hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans are losing sleep of MNsure."

Dayton acknowledged MNsure's rollout was problematic but said the 2015 numbers released Wednesday once against showed Minnesota with the lowest rates in the country. He said overall the Affordable Health Care Act "opened the door for people to be able to both afford and be assured that they're going to have quality care."

Nicollet said she is troubled that PreferredOne opted out of enrolling in MNsure in 2015, and that she would not support scrapping MNsure for the federal exchange. She said, however, that she would look at ways to improve the website. "If I learned anything as a software developer, it's that you don't reinvent the wheel," she said. "We find software and administrative handling of an exchange that is actually working well and we tailor it to Minnesota and implement it here."

Dayton, Nicollet and Johnson agreed that more money should be spent on roads and bridges. Johnson said he'd spend more from the existing budget to pay for transportation improvements. Dayton said getting enough money from the existing budget is unrealistic. Nicollet said she wants a greater focus on roads but would be open to a gas tax hike.

Gov. Mark Dayton
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton speaks at the first Minnesota gubernatorial debate of 2014 held in Rochester, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014.
Alex Kolyer / For MPR News

Johnson and Dayton also disagreed over copper-nickel mining in northeastern Minnesota. Johnson criticized Dayton for failing to approve the proposed PolyMet plan near Hoyt Lakes. "Those are literally hundreds of really good paying jobs up there," he said. "They are desperate for those jobs up on the Range and we're kind of slow-walking that process. I don't think PolyMet will open if the governor is re-elected."

Dayton said he's not taking a stance on the project because it's currently undergoing an environmental review by the Department of Natural Resources. "It's taken too long no doubt, but to jump in now and throw in whole hog and just say we'll forget about all of the environmental considerations and everything else to just pander to northern Minnesota to try to get their jobs I think is really irresponsible," he said.

The three candidates did agree on a few issues. All three said they would support allowing liquor stores to be open on Sundays.

The candidates will debate again next week in Moorhead.

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