Governor candidates stay on message in final debateby Laura McCallum, Minnesota Public Radio
The candidates for Minnesota governor debated one last time before Tuesday's election, trying to gain an edge in the close race. The latest Star Tribune poll released over the weekend shows DFL Attorney General Mike Hatch with a narrow lead over Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, but the lead is within the poll's margin of sampling error. Hatch, Pawlenty and the Independence Party's Peter Hutchinson made their final pitch to voters in a debate sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio.
St. Paul, Minn. — Before the final debate, supporters of the three candidates jostled for sidewalk space outside the Fitzgerald Theatre in downtown St. Paul.
Pawlenty supporters, shouting "E-85," tried to keep alive a gaffe that briefly derailed the Hatch campaign last week, when running mate Judi Dutcher said she didn't know what the ethanol-gas blend was, while Hutchinson supporters sang a campaign theme song.
"We're not gonna take it," they serenaded.
Inside the Fitzgerald, the tone was much less raucous as the candidates stayed on message. Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty painted a rosy picture of Minnesota, and accused his opponents of dwelling on the negatives.
"This is another example of Mr. Doom and Mr. Gloom saying everything stinks, and it doesn't. And I get tired of them trash-talking Minnesota," Pawlenty said.
DFL candidate Mike Hatch repeated his criticism that under Pawlenty's leadership, the middle class has been squeezed by rising property taxes, college tuition and health care costs.
"We now have over half the bankruptcies in America caused by health debt," he said. "It's the largest tax paid by businesses today. I want lower college tuition."
And Independence Party candidate Peter Hutchinson continued to blast the way Republicans and Democrats have led the state.
"It's the phony-baloney budgeting that has ended us up in this position where we cut a whole bunch of stuff that we wouldn't have needed to cut if we'd budget more honestly," Hutchinson said.
The three debated the issues that have dominated the campaign from the beginning - taxes, health care, education and transportation. Hatch and Hutchinson criticized the way Pawlenty dealt with a $4.5 billion deficit. Hatch says Pawlenty's no-new-taxes pledge led to higher costs for college students, seniors in nursing homes, homeowners and smokers. Hatch accused Pawlenty of trying to dodge responsibility for rising property taxes around the state. Pawlenty argued that state cuts to local government aid aren't entirely to blame.
"Local units of governments have increased property taxes way beyond the LGA cuts," the governor said.
"So you have no responsibility?" Hatch asked.
"Well, I think there is a correlation and I think our LGA cuts did have some impact. But to blame all of the property tax increases on that is not fair," Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty challenged Hatch to agree to a cap on property tax increases. Hatch says he opposes the idea, saying a similar proposal crippled public schools in California.
MPR's Gary Eichten asked Pawlenty's opponents if they would have increased statewide taxes to deal with the problem.
"Yes, I would have," Hutchinson said.
But Mike Hatch was less certain. "I probably, inevitably, somewhere along the line, we would have had some change in revenue," he said.
Hatch isn't calling for a tax increase now, and repeated his opposition to a gas tax increase, while saying he would sign one if the Legislature passes it. Hutchinson is the only one of the three who is calling for a gas tax increase to pay for transportation, and the only one who opposes a constitutional amendment on tomorrow's ballot that would dedicate the motor vehicle sales tax, or MVST, to transportation.
Hutchinson says a better solution is the transportation bill that Pawlenty vetoed last year.
"It would have raised the gas tax, it would have dedicated the MVST, and it would have dedicated a piece of the sales tax to transit. It would have been much more sufficient that this 15 percent solution that these guys are offering up," according to Hutchinson.
Hutchinson is polling in the single digits, but says he remains optimistic about the race because he says Minnesotans are tired of politics as usual.
All three will be trying to get out the vote in the final hours before the election. With such a tight race, the outcome may hinge on who does a better job of getting supporters to the polls.