In their first prime-time televised debate Sunday night, Minnesota’s DFL and Republican nominees for governor sharply engaged over taxes, wage laws, immigration and more.
With two weeks before the votes are counted, Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Walz leads Republican Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson by 6 percentage points, according to a new MPR News/Star Tribune Minnesota Poll. But Johnson has made up ground in recent weeks and there are enough undecided voters up for grabs to keep the race competitive.
During their hourlong debate broadcast statewide on KSTP and its affiliate stations, Johnson played the aggressor although Walz gave it back to his rival at times.
Here are five notable exchanges:
Minnesota’s fiscal direction
As he has throughout his campaign, Johnson said tax increases are off the table for specific initiatives or to salvage a state budget if the economy falters.
“I’m not going to raise taxes, I’ve made that very clear,” Johnson said, adding that Minnesota could extract budget savings by more closely policing public health and welfare programs to weed out people who shouldn’t be eligible, scrapping a state insurance exchange for the federal version and auditing other programs to determine which aren’t working properly.
Walz said he won’t let Minnesota fall back into a cycle of accounting shifts that paper over problems or push the state burden down the line. He supports a gas tax increase for transportation.
“I’m not willing to not invest where we need to,” he said.
Johnson said Walz “has promised the world to everybody” but hasn’t been as clear about what other taxes might rise to cover the costs.
“Let’s be responsible with other people’s money rather than promise the world to everyone and then figure it out later,” Johnson said.
Walz said Johnson’s portrayal of rampant spending without proper accountability amounted to fear-mongering.
“It’s two different visions of Minnesota: One that tells you what we can’t do and one that tells you what to fear,” he said. “The other tells you what we do and do together and how we grow.”
The push by some large Minnesota’s to boost their minimum wage to $15 an hour hasn’t been a front-and-center topic for the governor’s race.
But both candidates were asked if the state should step in -- either to raise the minimum wage across Minnesota or stop the cities from doing it on their own.
Walz said the state should boost the minimum wage, currently at $9.65 an hour for most employers.
“I also respect local entities. If the state is going to be paralyzed they need to do what is right for folks,” he said. “The economy grows. The best stimulus plan in the world is extra money in a middle-class person’s pocket.”
Johnson said the minimum wage is a state-level discussion because local differences in the mandated pay level will cause problems for Minnesota’s economy and cause hardship for small employers.
“I would support pre-emption there,” he said, using the term by which the state would bar cities from going beyond the statewide minimum workplace requirements.
But Johnson said he wouldn’t use that approach for all locally adopted policies that have drawn scorn from some at the Legislature. He said cities that regulate what kind of packaging is allowed at restaurants and retailers.
“I might think that’s stupid. But it’s not my job as governor to say the city of Minneapolis can’t do stupid things,” Johnson said. “But if it has an effect on the entire state, the state should be setting it.”
President Trump’s standoff with some of America’s largest trading partners have prompted tariffs and retaliatory tariffs, some of which have caused strain in farm country.
While Minnesota’s governor has a limited role in international trade -- other than promoting home-state goods on the world stage -- there could be some political fallout from the tariff battle nonetheless.
Johnson, who carries Trump’s endorsement, said he breaks with his fellow Republican on the topic and would press him to quickly calm the trade waters.
“I believe we should be encouraging trade as opposed to encouraging barriers,” Johnson said. "If this lasts much longer, we have farmers who are just getting killed by this. And it’s not the way to go.”
Walz piled on, calling the trade policies “horrific.” But he resisted the opening to tie Johnson to his party’s top figure, instead drawing differences with Johnson about the state’s investment in higher education research that can improve agriculture efficiency.
“So that if we have a boneheaded decision made from the administration we are able to weather that because of the work our folks did,” Walz said.
A tense divide over how welcoming Minnesota should be to people from other countries simmers on the political front.
Johnson has called for a pause in refugees bound for Minnesota communities and a harder line against immigrants in the country without proper authorization. Johnson said he would seek federal approval for a refugee resettlement moratorium until officials can get a better handle on costs and impact on local social services.
“Right now we have a lot of questions so we want to end our participation at least for now until we figure this out,” he said.
Walz said Minnesota has a proud immigrant heritage and warned of risk if it creates an unwelcome environment.
“Minnesota’s past, Minnesota’s present and Minnesota’s future is dependent on immigration,” he said. “It is dependent on us being seen where you can not just find refuge from war and terror. But you can go through the process to get here and live the American dream.”
The two also clashed over whether local police should be expected to inquire about immigration status of people they interact with and empower them to alert federal officials to possible violations. Johnson said restricting those things -- sometimes referred to as sanctuary policies -- is the wrong way to go. “We would be a magnet,” Johnson said.
Walz said Minnesota law enforcement has a different role than federal immigration authorities but that doesn't mean turning a blind eye to lawbreakers. “If you do a violent crime, regardless of your status in any way, you are going to go to prison,” Walz said.
Mining and pipelines
Minnesota Democrats have faced internal strife over proposed mining and oil pipeline projects, which could lead to more jobs but create environmental risks.
Republicans, including Johnson, are trying to capitalize by strongly advocating for regulatory approval of some controversial projects. Johnson said as governor he would aim to move them along, “not throw up new politically motivated roadblocks as we have seen from this administration, not creating shortcuts for them either.”
“Those are all the private sector creating good jobs for people who are desperate for good jobs right now,” Johnson said.
Walz said he and Johnson “are not too far off” on the projects, which include the Polymet copper-nickel mine on the Iron Range. He said it’s important that there are financial safeguards for the state if things don’t go well or remediation is required.
“What is missed in this is pitting one group against another,” Walz said. “To be very clear, the folks who do this mining they care deeply about clean water. And the folks who care about the clean water care deeply about the jobs and the growth that are there.”
On pipelines, Walz said he’d make sure there is consensus in the planning to head off problems. Johnson saw that as a dodge.
“I still don’t know where you are on Line 3,” he said, referring to a replacement and rerouting project that has stoked protests amid the regulatory review.
Walz left it there.
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