With four weeks left until Election Day, Republican Jeff Johnson and Democrat Tim Walz spent 90 minutes debating transportation, health care, immigration and other issues Tuesday night.
In what was billed as the Greater Minnesota debate, both candidates stressed their roots in rural parts of the state.
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Johnson is a Hennepin County commissioner from Plymouth who grew up in Detroit Lakes. He said he wants to ease the burden of state government regulations in rural areas.
"We are literally driving rural child care providers out of business. We are literally driving farmers out of business because of the attitude of government. I will change that."
Walz, a Mankato resident who has spent the past 11 years representing southern Minnesota in Congress, said he doesn't travel to greater Minnesota, he wakes up in it. He also stressed that he's not trying to drive a wedge between the rural and metro.
"Our values are the same. But our issues that we face may be different, whether it's housing or child care that might manifest itself differently."
The agriculture groups that co-sponsored the debate wanted to know where the candidates stand on Minnesota's still-controversial buffer law. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton pushed for the protective vegetation strips along waterways, and many farmers remain resentful.
Johnson claimed the voices of farmers were ignored.
"I've talked to farmers who said 'this isn't working for me, but here are some other ideas of things that would. But no one ever asked us. We were just told. It came down from on high.' "
Walz declared that he is not Dayton and that he has a different style. On buffers, Walz said he would take a more collaborative approach.
"We should be finding solutions that don't involve going to court, dividing our neighbors or not focusing on what really matters. This is a win-win. We can produce food and clean our water. I've seen it."
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On transportation, Walz said he wants an honest conversation with Minnesotans about funding solutions. He didn't rule out a possible gas tax increase. Johnson opposes a tax increase and wants to use general fund money and bonding to pay for road projects.
Johnson also opposes the push that many Democrats favor toward a single-payer health care system.
"Single-payer means there isn't private insurance any more. We all lose our insurance, and we're all forced on to one government plan. I think we need to move in exactly the opposite direction, because one of the reasons we're in such a terrible spot right now is because government took over a lot of what we were doing really well in Minnesota."
Johnson pressed Walz repeatedly about single-payer during the lengthy exchange on health care. Walz shot back that Johnson was looking for a bogeyman. He also suggested Johnson had a fundamental misunderstanding of the issue.
"Let's get to the heart of this. Costs are rampant. People can't afford it. It's not government takeover. I don't care who is able to deliver that the best. But we need to understand that if you don't cover everyone, you're paying for it anyway."
The candidates also clashed on other issues.
Johnson said he wants a pause on refugee resettlement in Minnesota to look at the cost to communities.
"Maybe we measure and decide that yeah, the benefits outweigh the costs. That's very possible. But we don't know what the costs are."
Johnson also said he would cooperate with federal enforcement of immigration laws. He said Walz would create a sanctuary state.
Walz said Johnson was using "charged terms" and mischaracterizing his position.
"This does nothing but stoke fear," Walz said. "These communities then feel under assault, and I hear every day that they do. And it doesn't need to be this way."