Minnesota governor candidates differ on ag approaches

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MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota's 2018 governor candidates offer a variety of solutions to rural problems.

In the largest governor candidate forum so far in the campaign, eight candidates appeared Thursday, Nov. 9, at the annual meeting of AgriGrowth, an organization that works for farmers and agri-businesses.

State Rep. Matt Dean, a Republican, said that too many greater Minnesota residents feel like they live in "lesser Minnesota."

He promised to appoint people who can provide both a clean state, air and water, and improve the economy.

"We should assume the best intentions for agriculture," Dean added, instead of Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton's buffer plan that Republicans say assumed farmers do not care about water.

State Rep. Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, told the rural audience the top issues he hears around the state are child care and education.

Health care, "certainly among farmers" is a main concern, he added. Thissen said he supports a plan Dayton is pushing, allowing anyone to get insurance from MinnesotaCare, a health insurance program designed for the working poor.

Thissen agreed with GOP candidates that too many "dictates" come from state government. Farmers should have a say before regulations are launched that affect them, he said.

State Sen. Dave Osmek, a Mound Republican, began by telling hundreds in the audience that he was raised on a farm, where he was "loaned out" to clean up after hogs and cows. That, he said, well qualified him for St. Paul politics.

On buffers, a frequent theme through the forum, Osmek said a take-away from Dayton's approach should be "one size doesn't always fit all. ... We need a governor who is going to listen."

He suggested cutting state spending 5 percent and cutting the sales tax. The lower sales tax especially would help border communities, he said, because they could better compete with neighboring states.

Jeff Johnson, a former state representative and current Hennepin County commissioner, brought back a theme he used in his unsuccessful 2014 run against Dayton: He has rural roots in Detroit Lakes, lives in a suburb and deals with urban issues as commissioner.

That background, he said, provides him with knowledge about how to deal with the rural-suburban-urban split.

LIke other Republicans, Johnson said taxes are too high. He said that Minnesota's lowest income tax rate is higher than the highest rate in 22 other states.

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a Mankato-area Democrat, said his Washington experience can help him as Minnesota governor.

As southern Minnesota congressman, Walz said, he understands that regional centers like Mankato are growing because of agriculture.

"What we need is joyful, hopeful problem solving," Walz said.

Erin Murphy, D-St. Paul, said that her 11 years as state representative have allowed her to travel the state, where he has learned to combine both beans and corn.

Unlike many other candidates, Murphy said she has not heard much about an urban-rural divide when she campaigns, but she said she does hear that rural areas "want to be sure they are being heard."

"If one part of Minnesota is falling behind, then all of Minnesota is falling behind," she said.

Keith Downey, a former legislator and state Republican party chairman from Edina, said he would cut 15 percent of state spending, like he proposed while a lawmaker.

With the spending cut, he said, "we have an opportunity for a $7 billion tax cut." He proposed cutting a variety of taxes.

He said such a move would "make Minnesota competitive again."

State Auditor Rebecca Otto, a Democrat, opened with the fact that she lives on "a tiny farm," where she shovels manure.

The loss of population is rural Minnesota's biggest problem, Otto said, making it hard for businesses, schools and other institutions to survive. "Everything I am doing in my agenda is economic-based," she said, which should help make the rural economy strong.

A rural-specific proposal of Otto's is to make sure University of Minnesota researchers develop one or two more crops Minnesota farmers can grow.