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Johnson, Pawlenty talk taxes, budget, Trump -- and who's a 'jackass'

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Mike Mulcahy, Jeff Johnson and Tim Pawlenty
MPR News' Mike Mulcahy hosts a debate between Republican gubernatorial candidates Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty on MPR News.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Minnesota Republican gubernatorial candidates Jeff Johnson and Tim Pawlenty went head-to-head Friday on issues from abortion to guns to who was more critical of Donald Trump before he became president.

The top GOP candidates in the race debated live on MPR News Friday, the first broadcast debate before the Aug. 14 primary. The primary winner moves on to the ballot in November.

Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner and the GOP's party-endorsed candidate, ran unsuccessfully for governor four years ago. Pawlenty served two terms as governor from 2003 to 2011 and is hoping to return to the job.

Here's a look at what they discussed:

TV attacks

Attack ads have been a point of tension in the race, including the first television spot from Pawlenty, which said Johnson supported property tax hikes, a sales tax increase proposed by Gov. Mark Dayton and spending millions of dollars on Obamacare.

Pawlenty defended that ad Friday, citing an instance where Johnson proposed a lower property tax increase than other members of the board, and an opinion piece where Johnson supported part, but not all, of a plan from Dayton to change the state's tax code, including sales taxes.

"If you are going to hold yourself out as the ideal conservative, or the perfect conservative and you're not, then it looks hypocritical and we wanted to point that out to voters," Pawlenty said.

Johnson said it was "the most dishonest ad" he's seen during his time in politics and several fact-checkers have given it poor ratings. "I think this is just kind of old school politics," he said. "This is a strategy from 10 or 20 years ago, which is, you're not out there engaging with voters, you're sitting in a room raising money and then you spend the money to attack your opponent."

Johnson also claimed Pawlenty was more of a disappointment to conservatives than former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson, who has since supported Democrats, including Hillary Clinton. He defended that statement.

"Tim campaigned as a conservative and governed, in many ways, as a moderate, whereas Arne campaigned as a moderate to liberal and he governed as a moderate to liberal," Johnson said.

That prompted Pawlenty to call Johnson a "poser ... He pretends he is for all of these things, that he is going to get all of these things done, but he has been in politics most of his adult life and has accomplished none of them."

Taxes

Both candidates say they want to lower the state's taxes, particularly income taxes.

Johnson said he would start with the lowest income tax bracket and would try to reduce licence tab fees. "They are called fees but they are actually a tax," he said.

Pawlenty said he moved Minnesota out of the top 10 highest taxing states as governor. Both Pawlenty and Johnson said they would eliminate taxes on security benefits.

"If you work here your whole life you get to the end of your life and you want to enjoy your retirement, the last thing you need is the state of Minnesota coming in and taking your hard earned money," Pawlenty said.

Collective bargaining

While Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker quickly moved to limit collective bargaining in the state after he became governor, neither Pawlenty or Johnson said they would do the same.

Pawlenty said he supports the recent United States Supreme Court decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which allows members to opt out of paying fair share dues.

"It gives public employees free rights to choose whether they want to be in the union or not in the union and still keep their job," he said.

Johnson said he grew up in a union household and used to be a labor lawyer. "I believe in the right to collectively bargain," he said. "I actually supported the Janus decision because I also believe individual workers should be able to choose whether they are in the union or not."

Guns

The two candidates in the race diverged on how they would approach the debate about gun laws.

As governor, Johnson said he would not sign any bills that would restrict gun ownership or purchasing.

"I don't think changing the age at which someone can buy a semi-automatic weapon or ban a bump stock is going to stop a school shooting," he said. The real issues are things like family breakdowns, metal health issues, and some school policies on discipline, he said."Those are tough topics, but those are the things we should be talking about."

Pawlenty said he is a strong Second Amendment supporter, but "there are improvements" that can be made. He wants to make it clear in law that bump stocks are illegal, and he would also support opening up the background check system to people who are not licensed gun dealers but are selling guns.

And both candidates agreed that the state needs to put more resources into mental health beds and professionals.

"We have a dire lack of counselors and bed space for those who are mentally ill and we are under-treating those who are mentally ill in the state," Pawlenty said.

Government spending

Johnson said he would start with the state's human services programs — one of the largest areas of state spending per person — and would create a state agency to audit programs to see if they are "producing results."

"We have to be honest that we are actually going to reduce spending," he said.

Pawlenty said: "Let's start by stop wasting money." He cited recent allegations of fraud among some state-assisted daycare providers. He also said the legislative auditor found areas where people are enrolling for state programs that they aren't eligible for.

"You are approaching a half a billion dollars a biennium in just those two examples of waste," he said.

Abortion

Both candidates oppose abortion, but they said they would approach the issue differently as governor.

Pawlenty said he would support promoting "positive alternatives" to reduce the number of abortions in the state, but he noted a state constitutional ruling that established abortion as a right in Minnesota.

"The court has already locked in Minnesota's view on that," he said.

Johnson said he would go further, signing bills to restrict abortions in the state. That includes the so-called heartbeat bill, which would ban abortions after a heartbeat is detected.

"If a bill comes to me that I believe is constitutional that restricts abortion further, I would absolutely sign it," he said.

President Trump

Trump hasn't endorsed either candidate in the race, and both Pawlenty and Johnson were critical of past statements the other made about the president before he was elected.

But just how critical each was of the president was a point of contention in the debate.

Pawlenty, who said Trump was "unfit" for the presidency before the election, ultimately voted for him. "I agree with most of his policy positions, as I have expressed in the past. Sometimes I don't always agree with his style and his language. I have said negative things about him but so has Jeff," Pawlenty said.

Johnson said he said he had critical things to say about the president before the election but ultimately said he'd vote for him "because he's a far better choice than Hillary Clinton," Johnson said.

"To be blunt about it, Jeff called him a jackass," Pawlenty responded. "So, there you have it."

Johnson pushed back.

"I said, 'I'm supporting the guy even if I have concerns about him,'" Johnson said. "That's a big difference between that [and saying he] is unfit to be president."