By Don Davis
Minnesota’s major Republican governor candidates have sounded a lot like four peas in a pod, showing few policy differences.
However, when asked about how they would deal with areas of the state outside the Twin Cities, some splits begin to surface.
Those questions especially show a stark difference between Orono businessman Scott Honour, a first-time candidate, and three veteran politicians. Honour stands alone in insisting that greater Minnesota should get no special treatment, saying his policies would help all Minnesotans.
The other three — Jeff Johnson, Kurt Zellers and Marty Seifert — vary on how much, and what, should be done differently in greater Minnesota, the part of
the state outside the Twin Cities urban and suburban areas.
Honour admitted that even he thinks greater Minnesota deserves special attention in road funding and that some property-poor communities should continue to receive Local Government Aid.
“Even my Republican competitors fall into the trap of going along with the status quo,” Honour said about those seeking the $123,912-a-year job. “What will help this state across the board is to get government out of the business of trying to pick winners and losers. It is not any good at that.”
A series of Forum News Service interviews with the four major GOP candidates competing in an Aug. 12 primary election produced some differences among them, but they agreed that winning greater Minnesota is critical to a primary victory and the Nov. 4 general election against Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.
There is a widespread feeling in political circles that whoever wins rural Minnesota wins the primary.
The rural “L” of western and southern Minnesota, long considered a key to a politician’s chances, is expanding to look like a different letter. It could be a “C,” including the Iron Range.
“I would put it more as a G …” Zellers said, looking at a map and verbally tracing a letter that begins in the northeast, goes down the west, across the south and back west to the St. Cloud area. “I would never exclude any place on the Iron Range in this election, particularly due to the copper-mining issue.”
Whatever the letter, most of the candidates said they spend about half of their campaign time outside the Twin Cities, visiting newspapers, radio stations and other venues, as well as marching in parades.
Greater Minnesota is so important to the candidates that two who live in the suburbs, Zellers and Johnson, picked rural running mates to balance their tickets even though they bring their own rural and small-town roots to the race. Seifert trumpets his life-long rural residency.
Candidates say they do not know who will vote Aug. 12 since it is rare for Republicans to
have a competitive primary. But rural voters generally show better primary turnout than those in the suburbs and urban areas.
That prompts the candidates to emphasize greater Minnesota issues.
“One size fits all doesn’t fit all the time in government,” Johnson said, adding that urban, suburban and greater Minnesota needs differ.
“It is really important for the next governor to be really focused, almost hyper focused, on greater Minnesota,” Zellers declared.
The biggest difference among the four candidates is how much they would target programs at greater Minnesota. The most stark example may be in how they would deal with biofuels such as corn-based ethanol and soybean-based biodiesel. In recent years, ethanol has fueled a boom in corn production.
Seifert, a Marshall resident and former state representative, said the state has created thousands of jobs and the state should not change the requirement that gasoline include 10 percent ethanol.
“I see this as the status quo for now,” he said, not jumping on a bandwagon to increase ethanol percentages.
For diesel, Seifert said, he can understand concerns about biodiesel gumming up fuel filters in cold weather. “Biodiesel mandates are not going to go up if I’m governor.”
Zellers, raised on a North Dakota farm and now a Maple Grove resident, said he wants to look into increasing the ethanol mandate to 15 percent, but needs more information before fully supporting it. At minimum, he said, he wants to keep existing mandates in place.
Johnson, who grew up in Detroit Lakes and lives in Plymouth, said he favors eliminating mandates from state law, including those affecting biofuels.
However, he added, he has been around government enough to know that the mandates cannot be eliminated right away.
“Government has created somewhat of a dependency,” Johnson said, adding that eliminating biofuel mandates is not a priority and that he would like to phase them out.
There is none of that waiting for Honour.
“I would try to push away from mandates as quickly as possible,” Honour said. “My view is that the less government is trying to influence a free market, the better.”
While many Minnesota politicians and government agencies trumpet the fact that their vehicles use biofuels grown in Minnesota, Honour takes a different approach.
“In energy, we ought to be moving to taking advantage of resources that are sitting right next door in North Dakota, with natural gas, and Montana and Wyoming with coal,” he said, emphasizing that the Ford F-350 pickup truck that he drives uses natural gas.
Transportation is a key issue in greater Minnesota.
The four said that greater Minnesota needs transportation help, and when they talk about transportation they mean roads. The four were united in opposing expansion of Twin Cities light rail and were mostly against passenger rail to other destinations if it means a state subsidy is needed.
Seifert said that a third of public works funding, which comes from the state selling bonds, should go to roads and bridges. That would provide $400 million to $500 million per two-year budget, he said, much more than normally is available.
That road bonding money would replace things such as local arts projects and other items that may be more wants than needs, he said.
Honour said that rural roads need more funding, but “the things state government does have to be looked at through the lens of how does it affect the entire state.” On the other hand, he added, road funding “is tied to the geography of the state.”
Johnson said too much “transportation” money is going to build sidewalks, trails and other things. That money needs to go back to roads and bridges, he said.
Regulations imposed on road builders have added to highway costs, he added, and streamlining those rules could save considerable money.
“My gut has always been that a little more weight should be placed on greater Minnesota,” Johnson said about transportation funding. “People are so far apart.”
Zellers said one way to save construction money is to exempt rural projects from a law requiring contractors to pay the “prevailing wage.” Under the law, rural projects pay workers the same as those in the Twin Cities, he said, even though the cost of living in most rural areas is lower.
“You can get a lot more bang for your buck,” Zellers said about rural projects.
Each claims to be best
Three of Minnesota’s four major Republican governor candidates have office space in the western Twin Cities suburbs, near where they live. But despite the location, each says he would be the best choice for greater Minnesota residents.
Former state Rep. Marty Seifert regularly brings up the fact that he is the only life-long Minnesotan in the race, and has lived in greater Minnesota all that time. Minnesotans prefer a “lifer,” he said, offering not-so-subtle insults at Kurt Zellers for growing up in North Dakota, Scott Honour for spending much of his career in California and Jeff Johnson for a stint in Chicago.
But his comments do not seem to bother his competitors.
Johnson said he can do a better job for greater Minnesota because he lives in Hennepin County, the largest in the state, after growing up in Detroit Lakes and graduating from Concordia College in Moorhead. That, he said, means he has a balanced background that gives him more credibility in both urban and rural areas.
Also, Johnson said, his running mate is former state Rep. Bill Kuisle, who will continue to run his rural Rochester farm if elected.
Zellers said he has been on the road in Minnesota his entire adult life, starting when he worked for then-U.S. Sen. Rod Grams and continuing when he was state House speaker. “I have traveled the state for 20 years,” he said.
He grew up on a farm near Devils Lake, N.D., and his running mate, Dean Simpson, owns grocery stores in Perham and New York Mills, factors Zellers calls advantages.
Honour lives in Orono and never lived in greater Minnesota. However, his running mate, state Sen. Karin Housley of the eastern Twin Cities suburbs, lived in Walker seven years when her hockey star husband played in Winnipeg.
Honour said his mother came from Willmar, where he continues to hear relatives lobby him on rural issues.
Property tax divide
The candidates split on whether the state should do something to keep rural property taxes in check.
Recently released figures show that farmland taxes will rise in coming years, even as other property taxes will fall, or at least rise at a slower rate than for farmers. The main reason that farm taxes are headed up is a dramatic increase in farmland values, which farmers say raise property taxes even though the higher values benefit them only if they sell.
Seifert said that a law he pushed when he was a lawmaker gives farmers tax breaks on the area around their homes, but it did not include such breaks in the increasingly popular school bond referendums. He said the existing cuts should be extended to all homesteaded land and to referendum-passed taxes.
He also said he supports limiting levies local governments can raise on farms.
“It is a matter of reforming the code that is skewed against farmers,” Seifert said.
Honour said there should be no special privilege for farmers. He said he wants lower taxes across the board, which would benefit farmers as well as everyone else.
“I am hesitant to say the state should step in,” Johnson said, speaking in favor of local control over the issue.
Zellers said he wants to keep agriculture taxes in check, especially so they don’t scare off young farmers. However, he added, he does not know if government can help.
While some groups urge state officials to limit local government spending in an effort to keep property taxes down, the GOP candidates generally agree that local governments should control local budgets.
They also agree that Local Government Aid and other state payments should be trimmed back to only those communities that cannot raise enough property tax to fund fundamental services such as police and fire protection.
The candidates say St. Paul and Minneapolis do not need the aid because they have strong enough tax bases to fund key services.
As a county commissioner, Johnson said he favors local control, but added that he could support a form of levy limits under some circumstances. He said he would tie the property tax controls to other laws that without limits would force up taxes.
No matter what the states does, Johnson said, there will remain urban-suburban-rural differences in how much money local governments have available.
School start debated
Rural and resort areas annually fight legislative efforts to allow schools to start before Labor Day.
Students are needed to work on farms and resorts and should be able to attend the State Fair, supporters of the post-Labor Day start say.
Honour and Johnson said local school boards should decide when to start schools.
One of Johnson’s first bills as a legislator was to allow schools to start when local boards wanted. “Holy cow,” he said of the unexpectedly strong opposition.
However, Johnson added, he remains in favor of letting local boards make their own decisions.
“I’m not personally hearing a lot of chatter about it,” Honour said. “It shouldn’t be a state mandate.”
“It is for our lakes, it is for our farmers, it is for our hospitality industry,” Zellers said of keeping the later start date.
While Seifert said he agrees with the later start, he said the bigger issue is that school days are too short and schools need to find ways to keep students in classes longer.
All of the GOP contenders said they support more pipeline and less train use to transport North Dakota crude oil through Minnesota.
“Pipelines are safer than rail,” Seifert said, adding that railroads “are going to have to work with us to make sure rail crossings are safer.”
He also said “it’s a fair criticism” some make that pipelines should not be in environmentally sensitive areas.
Zellers said he favors running an oil or gas pipeline in the right of way of other utilities, such as electrical transmission lines. “Where we have already established a utility like that, it is a more efficient use of time.”
The former House speaker also said pipeline companies should realize that it may be more efficient to move pipeline routes away from environmentally sensitive areas that often bog down the permitting process in lengthy government hearings.
Honour said he likes using pipelines to move oil, and would like to get rid of new energy mandates.
“Here we are the closest place to the Bakken (oilfield) where you would actually want to live, and instead of having a pipe from there to here to have low-cost natural gas, we put a solar mandate on our utilities that raises our electric rates, which harms everyone in the state,” Honour said.
“We ought to be promoting pipelines,” he added. “Our state has been holding things up.”