Election notebook: Michelle Obama leads big names to Minnesota

Michelle Obama with kids at White House.

By Don Davis

Some of the country’s biggest Democratic names plan Minnesota visits this week to help their candidates with two weeks until election day.

While the party’s biggest name, President Barack Obama, is not scheduled to be here, his wife is. So is his former secretary of state, potential presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. And his vice president and other possible presidential hopeful, Joe Biden, plans to be in northeastern Minnesota.

Republicans have not announced any VIP visitors in the next-to-last full week of the 2014 campaign season, although New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a possible presidential candidate, campaigned for GOP candidates last week.

Also, former President Bill Clinton earlier this month attracted 2,700 to a Minneapolis rally. U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Jon Tester of Montana appeared with U.S. Sen. Al Franken during the weekend.

First lady Michelle Obama is to rally Democrats this afternoon at Patrick Henry High School in North Minneapolis. She is coming to campaign for Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton’s re-election campaigns. She is expected to speak after 3:30 p.m.

The get-out-the-vote rally is free, but tickets were needed for people to attend.

Biden will visit the Iron Range and Duluth Thursday. He also visited the area days before the 2012 election.

The vice president is to be in Hibbing to stump for Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, who the latest poll shows trailing Republican challenger Stewart Mills.

Biden also will be in Duluth for an event on domestic violence issues on Thursday

Also Thursday, Hillary Clinton has added an afternoon rally to her previously planned fundraiser for Dayton.

Clinton, a former U.S. senator, will be featured at a rally planned for Macalester College’s Leonard Center Fieldhouse. Tickets are free and available at the DFL Website.

The Clinton fundraiser for Dayton will be early Thursday evening at the St. Paul RiverCentre, with tickets available for up to $2,500 each. Co-hosting the event with Clinton will be Franken and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

“We are excited to have Secretary Clinton back in Minnesota to support Sen. Franken, Gov. Dayton and the DFL ticket,” Chairman Ken Martin of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party said. “There’s a lot of work to do over the next two weeks and Minnesotans are energized to help get out of the vote, volunteer, knock on doors and talk to voters about what’s at stake this election.”

Ag coalition pushes issues

Members of a coalition of Minnesota-based farm and food organizations is touring Minnesota and informing voters in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 4 election about farming and food production issues.

The group, known as A Greater Minnesota, asks voters to support candidates that have signed a pledge that encourages support of farms of all sizes, “environmental stewardship, caring for farm animals, sensible food labeling and food safety.” Sixty-five candidates have signed on.

“Concerns regarding the safety and methods of how our food is produced have increased dramatically in recent years, which is ironic because the care, safety and protected environment of our farm animals has never been better,” said Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association and Chicken and Egg Association of Minnesota. “Crops, today, are producing higher yields, nourishing more people, all while using less water, fuel and other chemicals.”

Executive Director David Preisler of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association said farm groups are under pressure “from extreme activists and the views of the majority are not being heard. Our state government needs to be a stronger partner and supporter of Minnesota farmers and ag-related companies if we want to protect and grow this industry.”

Dayton up by 10

A just-released poll shows Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton with a 10-point lead over Republican challenger Jeff Johnson.

The KSTP-SurveyUSA poll reported that half of the likely voters surveyed said they would vote for Dayton, with 40 percent backing Johnson. The rest support another candidate or have not decided.

The poll also shows Republican challenger Stewart Mills leads Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan 47 percent to 39 percent in their northeast and east-central Minnesota district.

Nolan beat Republican Chip Cravaack two years ago, which was just two years after Cravaack upset long-time U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar.

The 8th Congressional District used to be dependably Democratic, but changes such as the district being extended south into GOP territory has made it more of a swing district.

Different strokes for different governor candidates

Mark Dayton and Jeff Johnson see the world differently.

Very differently.

Democratic Gov. Dayton wants the minimum wage to rise as planned because “I believe in the old-fashioned notion that work should pay” for the necessities of life.

His Republican challenger, Johnson, prefers to focus on what he calls “the maximum wage” to improve all Minnesotans’ pay.

Dayton says more money is needed to improve transportation, which officials say needs a $12 billion injection to keep roads and bridges in good shape.

Johnson, on the other hand, feels roads and bridges should take priority in state spending, replacing other programs that could be cut or eliminated.

Dayton would allow the proposed Sandpiper oil pipeline to continue to work its way through the process at the state Public Utilities Commission.

Johnson claims that Dayton appointees to the board are holding up pipeline approval on behalf of environmentalists, and he would push it through.

Those and other issues illustrated differences between the two major Minnesota governor candidates during an hour-long debate sponsored by the Duluth News Tribune and Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce.

The third debate involving the two produced no new revelations, but as Johnson said afterwards it may have made the “differences more stark.”

It was the first debate without Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet. The two previous ones included her, and organizers of the two final debates have not invited her.

Johnson and Dayton often looked at, and scolded, each other during the early-morning debate.

When talking about a Vikings football stadium that costs more than $1 billion, half funded by tax money, Johnson explained the situation that was similar to other issues: “This is another example of how we are going to differ as much as we can possibly differ”

On the stadium, Johnson said taxpayers should not have paid for it, citing a new New Jersey stadium construction project that involved no government funds. “This whole deal has been a disaster.”

Dayton, a champion for the facility, rebutted Johnson: “Tell 7,500 who are working to build the project that this is a disaster.”

The first-term governor said the professional football team would be in Los Angeles or another city if Minnesota had not built a stadium to replace the Metrodome. The new facility, to be done in less than two years, is going up on the former Metrodome site. Dayton said it is bringing new vigor to a formerly run down part of downtown Minneapolis.

On the minimum wage, Dayton said that more than 300,000 Minnesotans will benefit directly as it rises to $9.50 an hour in the next two years, and others’ wages also will rise.

“If you want to build a middle class, you have to give people a chance to earn that money through the workplace,” Dayton said.

But Johnson, who said that he would do more to help the middle class than Dayton, said that Minnesotans do not want minimum wage jobs.

The Republican brought up a talking point he often uses, that half of the state’s workforce is underemployed and a minimum wage increase would not help them. Johnson often promotes help for businesses, so they can create better jobs.

“You want to lower the minimum wage and want to lower taxes on the super wealthy,” Dayton told Johnson.

Much of the answer to the road and bridge funding deficit, Johnson said, is to move them up to the top of the state priority list. In an earlier interview, Johnson said that means some programs could lose money.

Johnson said that too much transportation money is being spent on sidewalks, bicycle paths and other items other than roads and bridges. He suggested that in addition to changing priorities, he would borrow more money.

Dayton said that transportation borrowing already is at its upper limit and much transportation spending already goes to repaying previous loans.

The Democratic incumbent said the situation requires new revenue, but was not clear about how he would raise it. At a Forum News Service debate last week, he said he would propose a sales tax on gasoline, but the next day backed away a bit from the idea. In Duluth, he said that remains a possibility, but said attitudes like Johnson’s  that more money is not needed could kill the concept in the Legislature.

Both candidates professed support of the Sandpiper pipeline, which is proposed to go across northern Minnesota. And both said it eventually could ease railroad congestion.

Johnson accused Dayton and his three PUC appointees of stalling the pipeline, with plans to kill it after the Nov. 4 election. Dayton said that pipeline construction needs to be fully studied for environmental impacts before it is built.

The two also differed on MNsure, the state web-based health insurance sales program.

MNsure got off to a rocky start last year, but Dayton said it is improving and offers the country’s lowest cost insurance. But, he said, some oppose it for political purposes.

“People who oppose the Affordable Care Act want to go back to Darwinian survival of the richest,” he said to Johnson.

“It has been an unmitigated disaster since Day 1,” Johnson told Dayton, then pledged to seek federal permission to make some changes in MNsure so innovations could be incorporated. He did not say what innovations he backs.

Minnesota leaders seek federal rail help

By Don Davis

Minnesota’s leaders want federal help to ease railroad delays.

U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton on Monday sent a letter to the head of the Surface Transportation Board saying that rail delays are hurting many parts of the economy.

“As we watch winter come to the state of Minnesota, we have become increasingly alarmed by the service failures of several railroads that serve critical industries in our state,” the three Democrats wrote to board Chairman Daniel Elliott.

And Tuesday, Dayton holds what is expected to be the last of a series of rail safety and rail congestion summits. It will be 10 a.m. at Kirby Ballroom, University of Minnesota Duluth. It begins an hour after he is to end an election forum with Republican governor candidate Jeff Johnson.

Following the rail meeting, Dayton is to meet with Minnesota Power officials.

The state’s power companies are among those complaining that overloaded rails are slowing service. Rail congestion is causing power plants to run low on coal.

“We are hearing daily from captive shippers across the agricultural, mining and energy sectors who cannot move products to market or transshipment locations; cannot secure delivery of enough coal to run power plants; and are forced to find extremely uneconomic alternatives, which ultimately lead to higher costs and poorer outcomes for businesses and end-use consumers,” the officials’ letter said.

They claim that railroads “have not provided even minimally adequate levels of rail service.”

The Surface Transportation Board oversees freight railroads and the official wrote that power companies are restricting use of coal-fired power plants to conserve coal stockpiles.

The three say that the situation appears to be getting worse.

Railroad officials recently told state legislators that service is improving and will get better in coming years as they expand their rail networks and make other infrastructure changes.

An Amtrak official at the legislative hearing blamed rail delays on hours-long waits its passengers must endure.

Passenger and freight trains share the rails. The Amtrak official said freights, especially those carrying oil, get priority, but railroad officials denied that.

Farmers already have sustained more than $100 million in losses due to rail congestion, which Dayton blames mostly on greatly increase use of rails to transport western North Dakota crude oil.

Farmers say they have a difficult time getting fertilizer and other crop inputs, and worry that crops they are harves ting will not get to market on time.

Independence candidate unhappy not being in debate


By Don Davis

The Independence Party candidate for Minnesota governor complains that a Tuesday forum breaks with tradition by leaving her out.

Hannah Nicollet told reporters Monday that Independence governor candidates have been included in past forums sponsored by the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce and the Duluth News Tribune.

She also said that recent polls have shown voters want “a third-party option.”

Chamber President David Ross said that the sponsors began organizing the event right after the August primary election. They reached an agreement with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican Jeff Johnson campaigns.

“We proceeded with that and have adhered to that and very recently came the request from the Nicollet campaign to be involved in this,” Ross said. “To do that would be to break this hard-fought arrangement and we wanted to honor the original commitments. … To change that in the 11th hour would be a disservice to our agreement.”

Ross said that the Nicollet campaign was notified of the decision Friday. Nicollet said she does not understand why she was left out.

Nicollet has been in the low single digits in all but one independent poll. A Forum News Service debate last week included her with Dayton and Johnson after an obscure poll was discovered that gave her 11 percent support, one point more than required to take part in the Moorhead event.

All three candidates were included in a Rochester debate. Two other debates also have not invited Nicollet, but she said that “we are still in discussions.”

Nicollet said she plans to be in Duluth Tuesday for broadcast interviews, but does not plan to attend the newspaper-chamber event.

Duluth’s My9 television plans to broadcast the forum live, as will 100.5 FM radio in the Duluth area. The Duluth News Tribune will make the forum video available on its Website Tuesday morning, while Minnesota Public Radio’s news stations plan to replay the hour-long forum’s audio at noon.

The public seating at the event already is full.

Governor campaign notebook: Ag property tax cut not likely

By Don Davis

Minnesota farmers should not expect their property taxes to fall right away regardless of who is elected governor.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican challenger Jeff Johnson have no plans for immediate change as farmland taxes continue to rise when other property taxes have fallen or risen at slower rates.

Johnson said that he hopes to dust off a bipartisan property tax report compiled two years ago and see if anything in it would help.

“I don’t know what the change is, to be honest with you,” Johnson said.

Dayton said that property taxes are not the best way to raise money to fund local governments, but they are the best method available. He does not plan to propose any specific ag tax changes.

Property taxes are based on land value, and since farmland prices have been soaring recently property taxes also are rising.

“I say it is the most unfair tax,” Dayton said about property taxes.

Dayton said that his plans to change sales taxes, including adding some to business-to-business transitions, were “roundly trashed,” and he does not plan to bring them up again as a way to reduce property taxes.

“For the foreseeable future, we have a surplus and I am not going to raise anybody’s taxes for anything,” he said.

Johnson cautioned Minnesotans to be patient: “I think it will take a couple of years to come up with a plan to reform taxes. It is not just cutting them.”

Forum News Service discussed farm taxes and many other greater Minnesota issues with the candidates during campaign swings they made in rural areas.

 Transportation spending

Neither of the two candidates said they plan to suggest a tax increase to fund what they agree are major unmet transportation needs.

But those comments came before Wednesday night, when Dayton suggested support for a gasoline sales tax.

“We are going to have to raise revenues and we are going to have to prevent the continued deterioration of our highway system,” Dayton said before the Wednesday night debate.

The state needs $6 billion to stop highway deterioration and congestion, a figure that does not even include adding new roads, Dayton said.

“There is no free lunch,” he added. “We don’t have an effective way to fund it … anywhere in the country right now.”

Johnson’s answer to transportation problems is to make roads and bridges a top state priority and take money from other areas for them.

“We all rely on roads and bridges more than anything else,” he said, so transportation spending on transit, sidewalks and other programs should be whittled back.

Johnson said he would support more state borrowing for roads and bridges, but Dayton said the state already borrows as much money for such uses as is allowed.

Biofuel differences

Dayton said government has a role in developing industries such as ethanol and biodiesel, fuels produced with Minnesota grains, while Johnson prefers to keep government out of private business.

However, Johnson said, since state government gave the industries a boost and required that the fuels be used, he does not want to end the mandate right away.

“I never have been a strong supporter of state mandates or state subsidies … because I think the private market does the best job of creating the energy market,” Johnson said. “But I also fully recognize how tremendously individuals and business people have relied on that mandate.”

Johnson also said he would not use the bully pulpit as governor to promote the use of higher amounts of ethanol blended into gasoline. Republican Tim Pawlenty frequently preached ethanol when he was governor.

“I think consumer can make the best choice of what makes sense for them,” Johnson said.

Increasing the percentage of ethanol in gasoline is “not realistic or fair” this this point, he said.

Dayton said that the state’s long-running mandate that gasoline contain 10 percent ethanol, usually made from corn, is “one of the principle reasons that the industry has been able to establish itself in spite of the fierce opposition of the oil industry.”

He also supports biodiesel, a soybean-based fuel added to diesel. The state has a role in helping with “transitional costs” with higher blends of the soybean fuel, he said.

With ethanol, “one of the basic laws of thermo dynamics is anytime you convert from one form of energy to another there is efficiency quotient and you lose energy,” the governor said. That means it does not produce as much energy as pure gasoline, he added, which is reflected in lower prices for ethanol than gasoline.

Governor candidates get more specific in varied Moorhead debate

Forum News Service Minnesota governor candidate debate

By Adrian Glass-Moore

Candidates for Minnesota governor were forced to be specific at their second debate Wednesday on the campus of Minnesota State University Moorhead, a shift in a campaign that has been noted for staying vague.

Republican challenger Jeff Johnson pledged to hire an outside auditor to review state programs, give more power to parents of students in failing schools and speed up permitting processes.

Incumbent Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said he would focus on funding for badly needed transportation improvements across the state by proposing a sales tax on gas, increasing funding for special education and lobbying for a child care tax credit in the state Legislature.

The gas tax was a point of disagreement between the two major party candidates and Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet, who said she would “possibly” support a gas increase but stressed the need for bonds.

For his part, Johnson dismissed the idea of raising taxes as “wrong.”

“I do believe that we should start bonding for roads,” he said.

The debate covered everything from the proposed Sandpiper oil pipeline to marijuana legalization, and fielded questions from social media.

Johnson took every chance to distinguish himself from Dayton by drawing attention to what he called their vastly different leadership styles and backgrounds.

Citing his upbringing in greater Minnesota, Johnson said he would be a better advocate for more rural communities.

“I think this is a fundamental difference between Governor Dayton and me,” Johnson said. “The fact that my roots are here, that my family is here, actually gives me an appreciation of greater Minnesota.”

Johnson was born in Detroit Lakes and attended Concordia College in Moorhead.

But the incumbent Democrat defended his record, saying that 38 percent of funding from recent bonding bills went outside of the Twin Cities.

“Being from greater Minnesota doesn’t automatically mean you’re for greater Minnesota,” the governor said.

The two disagreed on the state of the economy and job prospects for Minnesotans in response to a question from Anne Blackhurst, president of MSUM.

Blackhurst asked what the state could do better to encourage graduating students to find jobs in the state.

After Dayton cited low unemployment figures in the state, Johnson accused him of painting a rosy picture of the state’s economy and failing to acknowledge an underemployment problem.

“I truly think that you are out of touch,” Johnson said. “I am so tired of being told that everything is perfect.”

Johnson wasn’t the only one leveling criticism. Dayton said his challenger failed to support education when he was in the Legislature, a claim Johnson denied.

Nicollet stood out among the candidates for her support of recreational marijuana legalization and abolishing the corporate income tax.

The governor stuck to emphasizing his first term’s accomplishments.

“I started running for governor in 2009 because I saw the state headed in the wrong direction,” he said. Citing a projected budget surplus thanks to his “balanced approach,” the governor said, “We’re on a sound fiscal platform now.”

The debate, moderated by Don Davis of the Forum News Service, was the second of five. The next debate will be in Duluth on Oct. 14.

Where to watch #mngov debate

Here are Forum Communications Co. Websites carrying tonight’s Forum News Service Minnesota governor debate live:


WDAY’Z Xtra channels in northwestern Minnesota (channel 6.3 over the air on WDAY and 8.3 on WDAZ) also will carry debate live.

Forum Communications’ newspaper sites will have a debate video recording available Thursday afternoon. Minnesota Public Radio will rebroadcast most of the debate at noon Thursday.

Minnesota governor candidates debate tonight

Minnesota’s three major-party governor candidates go on stage tonight to answer greater Minnesota and general state government questions.

Voters may attend the 7 p.m. event at Hansen Theatre on the Minnesota State University Moorhead campus. The 90-minute debate sponsored by Forum News Service will be shown live on Forum Communications Co. Websites serving Minnesota (go to www.forumcomm.com to find one) and aired live on WDAY’Z Xtra channels in northwestern Minnesota (channel 6.3 over the air on WDAY and 8.3 on WDAZ).

A recorded video of the debate will be available on Forum Communications newspaper Websites Thursday afternoon and Minnesota Public Radio will air a shortened version at noon Thursday.

The debate will include Republican Jeff Johnson, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Hannah Nicollet of the Independence Party.

Questions, to be asked by Dana Mogck of WDAY and Don Davis of Forum News Service, will include some emailed in advance as well as those picked up from Twitter during the debate from people using hashtag #mngov.

Candidates would treat outstate same as Twin Cities, but different

By Don Davis

Minnesota’s two major governor candidates tend to shy away from saying they would treat greater Minnesota differently than the Twin Cities, but when Gov. Mark Dayton and Jeff Johnson are pressed, differences emerge.

In Forum News Service interviews conducted as the candidates drove around rural Minnesota in September, they emphasized that things they could do to help the entire state also help rural Minnesota and regional centers.

“We restored fiscal stability to the state,” Dayton said, emphasizing that he inherited a $6.2 billion state deficit, with the state owing schools more than $2 billion. The debt and schools have been paid off and the state has a bit of a surplus.

“We made taxes less regressive; in Minnesota by raising taxes on the top 2 percent (of earners) and used that money to invest in education and avoid further cuts,” the Democratic incumbent said. “If we had had a clean slate (when his term began) … we would not have needed to raise anybody’s taxes.”

Now, he said, he sees no need to raise any taxes, any time soon.

Johnson said his philosophy of lower taxes and finding ways to help businesses — such as speeding up issuance of state permits and reducing regulations — would help all parts of the state.

However, the Republican said, “every area of the state has different needs. … We should not ignore those needs.”

He accused the Dayton administration of a “metro-centric attitude” since Dayton and his running mate, Tina Smith, are urban Twin Cities residents. Johnson grew up in Detroit Lakes and  his running mate, Bill Kuisle, is a Rochester-area farmer.

One of the most striking differences between Johnson and Dayton is how they would treat Local Government Aid (state money that goes to cities) and funds sent to other local governments.

Johnson said LGA should return to its roots: helping fund fundamental needs such as public safety in communities with insufficient property to tax, the main way they have to raise revenue. “I don’t happen to think Minneapolis needs LGA.”

If Johnson could eliminate Minneapolis and St. Paul payments, that mostly would leave greater Minnesota communities getting the checks because most suburbs get little or no LGA. “Most communities that have needs are in greater Minnesota.”

In the first governor race debate, in Rochester, Dayton said he made LGA a priority because it is essential to provide fundamental services. He always has supported Minneapolis and St. Paul getting the aid.

Republicans generally get little voter support from urban areas such as Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth, which are Democratic strongholds and the biggest LGA recipients.

Dayton talks a lot about what he has done to improve education funding and what remains to be done. He said that he will stick to his promise made during the 2010 campaign to increase education funding every year.

He points to tuition freezes at the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems, which the schools say can continue if they get additional funding. But Dayton also said he works on making sure Minnesota businesses get trained workers they need.

At the Arctic Cat plant in Thief River Falls, for instance, “they need people with mechanical engineering,” Dayton said. “The courses they teach across the street are for architectural engineering.” He said he works with leaders of the two higher education systems to make sure the right training is provided in the right places.

“My job is to paint with a broad brush statewide, recognizing things will be different depending on the needs,” he said, and it is state workers who take laws and adapt them to specific needs.

Dayton said that Minnesota businesses have received extra help when needed under his administration and does not plan to ask for specific program such as then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty did when lawmakers passed the Job Opportunity Building Zones that targeted some rural areas.

Johnson could see some of those programs being needed.

“In my perfect world, we have a strong enough economy that we don’t have to provide those types of services…” he said. “However, we are quite a ways from that perfect world so in the short term I can see some of those incentive programs directed toward areas in most need of economic development.”

Like many of Johnson’s proposals, he said those programs likely would not happen until the second two-year budget he proposes, in 2017. He said that there will be too little time when he writes his first budget next spring to include many of the changes he would like. Besides, he added, for at least for two years, Democrats will be in charge of the Senate and he would need to work out compromises.

“I have got to figure out what parts of my agenda enough Democrats can agree with that I can get it passed,” Johnson said.

Nicollet to join Dayton, Johnson in Moorhead debate

Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet has been invited to a Wednesday night Minnesota governor debate.

She will join Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican Jeff Johnson in Hansen Theater at Minnesota State University Moorhead for the 7 p.m. debate.

The invitation was offered Monday after a poll surfaced that showed her with 11 percent support. The threshold of being included in the Forum News Service debate was 10 percent support.

The poll by Gravis Marketing in Florida was conducted in July, but not released to the Minnesota media. Gravis President Doug Kaplan, a political consultant, said the poll was conducted by his company and not funded by any political group.

The Gravis poll showed Dayton with 52 percent, Johnson with 37 and Nicollett 11. It was conducted by automated telephone calls.

Nicollet has been in the low single digits in most polls.

The 90-minute debate is the second for the three candidates. Three more governor debates are planned.

Questions for the Moorhead event may be emailed to debate@forumcomm.com. Forum News Service personnel will monitor Twitter so questions with the hashtag #mngov also may may be asked.

First debate shows Dayton, Johnson differences

Dayton, Johnson

By Don Davis

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s chief challenger took health insurance cost information the administration released Wednesday and used it hours later against the governor during their first debate.

Republican Jeff Johnson said MNsure and new federal health laws have hurt the state’s insurance system, which he said had been best in the country.

Turning to Dayton, Johnson said, “You wanted to be the first in the country to implement MNsure. … It is hurting people.”

“We have people with babies who can’t get their babies insurance for months,” he said.

Dayton said that Wednesday’s news about MNsure, which gives Minnesotans an online place to buy insurance, was good: “For the second year in a row, Minnesota will have the lowest insurance exchange rates in the country.”

MNsure has helped bring the Minnesota uninsured rate down 40 percent, the Democratic governor said, the second lowest in the country. The 4.5 percent premium increase is the lowest of rates announced in any state, he said.

Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet said that since federal law requires much of what MNsure does, the controversial program needs to remain open. However, she added, “it is going to be difficult.”

Like Republicans often do, she complained about problems setting up MNsure and its operations once it was running. “We probably will have to fix it as long as there is a federal mandate.”

Dayton, Johnson and Nicollet showed plenty of differences in the Rochester debate. And as the debate ended, Johnson showed a bit of fire.

“It has been kind of disappointing to watch some of the mistruths, the lies, that you and some of you supporters have had on TV,” Johnson told Dayton.

Commercials that say as a state representative Johnson voted against raising the minimum wage and to cut education funding were among things Johnson denied.

Dayton plugged an improved state economy since he took office in 2011, trumpeting the elimination of a $6.2 billion debt and repaying schools more than $2 billion the state borrowed from them.

In the next four years, he added, “I don’t see raising anybody’s taxes” after upping taxes on the rich and smokers in his first term.

Johnson, however, said Minnesota’s private job performance is the Midwest’s worse, which he blamed on high taxes.

Nicollet said she would get rid of the state corporate income tax to help businesses add jobs.

She frequently criticized state officials for helping fund a new Vikings football stadium.

The debate, in front of about 500 people at the Mayo Civic Center, was the first of five bringing together Dayton and Johnson. It was sponsored by the Rochester Post-Bulletin, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and the Rochester Chamber of Commerce.

The next debate, sponsored by Forum News Service, is at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Hanson Theatre on the Minnesota State University Moorhead campus.

Suggested questions for the Moorhead debate may be emailed to debate@forumcomm.com. It will be a 90-minute event that is open free to the public.

Polls thus far this campaign season show software developer Nicollet, 40, and other third-party candidates with very little support, but up to 20 percent of voters undecided. She has not been invited to any of the four remaining debates.

Dayton, 67, is making his first attempt at re-election after serving a single term as state auditor and U.S. senator. He has been leading in polls, in most cases by single digits. Dayton has run for other offices unsuccessfully. He comes from the family that started Dayton department stores and Target.

Johnson, 47, is a Hennepin County commissioner, former state representative and a lawyer. Republicans say that unlike Dayton and running mate Tina Smith, both urban Twin Cities residents, Johnson grew up in Detroit Lakes and attended Concordia College in Moorhead and he picked a running mate, Bill Kuisle, who farms outside of Rochester.

Dayton, Johnson, Nicollet

Rail slowdowns have widespread impact

Packed committee room

By Don Davis

A soybean farmers from southwestern Minnesota and an official of a taconite mine in the northeast, and more than a dozen others, came to the same conclusion: Significant railroad delays throughout the Upper Midwest are hurting nearly everyone.

Bill Gordon, who farms near Worthington, told a joint Tuesday meeting of five Minnesota legislative committees that the state should consider allowing heavier trucks on Minnesota roads and shippers should make more use of the Duluth harbor to ease a crush on railroads.

U.S. Steel official Larry Sutherland said hundreds of thousands of tons of taconite, used to make steel, are sitting on the ground on the Iron Range because of delays in trains needed to pick it up.

Power plant operators testified that coal was not being delivered quickly enough, farmers said they are struggling to get crops to markets, an Amtrak official said freight traffic is delaying his trains by hours and propane suppliers said that while things look better than a year ago, they still worry about getting heating fuel to Minnesotans when cold weather arrives.

More than 40 state legislators attended the meeting to hear about the impact of railroad congestion.

“Welcome to America,” state Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson said. “It’s a supply-and-demand situation.”

The committees took no action, but bills are expected to be considered to relieve the rail delay problem when the Legislature convenes on Jan. 6.

Tuesday’s meeting, which lasted four and a half hours, brought testifiers from across the state and beyond who told of growing problems with widespread impacts. Railroad officials said they are working on the issue, while at the same time admitting the situation has been ugly.

“We recognize that we need to do more and we need to do it better,” said Brian Sweeney of BNSF Railway Co.

While Minnesota legislators repeatedly have blamed BNSF’s delays on the railroad placing priority on transporting western North Dakota oil across Minnesota, Sweeney strongly denied that.

“There is a perception out there that we are prioritizing oil,” Sweeney said. “That is not at all true. … Everyone’s service has suffered.”

Sweeney said that oil companies are not happy with BNSF because their shipments are being delayed, like those of other shippers.

The railroad official said that all types of shipping are up.

BNSF is adding 350 employees in Minnesota and buying locomotives this year, Sweeney said. In the next three years, he said, the railroad is undertaking billions of dollars’ worth of projects including adding a second track in much of the state.

However, he said that just as helpful is adding track in places like North Dakota, where the country’s largest oil boom is demanding more railcars.

“All of the solutions are several years out,” Dave Christianson of the Minnesota Department of Transportation said

While Republicans say pipelines are the answer to rail issues, Christianson said they take time to build and even if all the proposed pipelines would be built, the same number of oil trains would travel through Minnesota as North Dakota’s Oil Patch is not expected to reach peak production for a decade.

Christianson said that coal-fired power plants may be affected the most by train delays.

Power plant operators told legislators that options other than coal are expensive and limited. Consumers will end up paying the cost, they said.

Amtrak official Derrick James blamed delays on BNSF and Canadian Pacific in Minnesota, which own tracks the passenger trains use.

The Empire Builder, which goes through Minnesota and North Dakota as it travels between Chicago and the northwest, has been seriously affected by heavy freight traffic, he said.

“The state of affairs is unsustainable,” he said, adding that hours-long delays mean fewer are using Amtrak and the rail organization is losing money. “The capacity of the (rail) network is not out there to provide the needed capacity.”

Before Tuesday’s meeting, delays farmers experience were the prime talking point. But bad news for farmers could be good news for railroads, Frederickson said.

Lower prices farmers are getting for crops this year, he said, probably means more crops will be stored on farms and in elevators until prices rise again. That could ease agriculture demand for trains for the time being.

Also cutting the demand could be sky-high costs of leasing rail cars. Rep. Patti Fritz, D-Faribault, said her farmers say rail cars that used to go for $750 have soared to $4,000 in recent months. Others said cars can go for up to $6,000.

Grain elevators have suffered, Bob Zelenka of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association said. “We have elevators that have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Gordon said that farmers need quick shipping to get their products to international markets on time. He said that shipping on the Great Lakes through Duluth would be one solution.

He also suggested that the state allow heavier trucks on the roads, as do many nearby states. However, House Transportation Finance Chairman Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, said that heavier trucks would lead to more road and bridge damage.

Sutherland said one of U.S. Steel’s two taconite plants is in good shape because its product needs just a short lift to Two Harbors or Duluth. But the other plant ships taconite to Illinois and Alabama, shipments now delayed by rail congestion.

With 250,000 tons on the ground at the one plant alone, the situation “is a great concern,” he said.

And it is not just shipping the taconite. His plants use more electricity than the entire city of Duluth, so coal Minnesota Power needs to generate electricity must be delivered on time.

Sutherland said railroad delays have cost his company millions of dollars. Al Rudeck of Minnesota Power said his company’s customers, mostly large firms, have paid $16 million more because of slow rail service.