GOP gubernatorial candidates battle for votes in historic primary

By Heather J. Carlson, Post-Bulletin, Rochester, Minn.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 01--It's a political phenomenon rarely seen by Minnesota Republican voters -- a competitive gubernatorial primary.

Traditionally, Republicans line up behind the endorsed candidate and the primary turns into a formality. But this year is different. Four serious Republican candidates will face-off in the Aug. 12 primary in what appears to be a wide-open race. They are Orono businessman Scott Honour, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, former state Rep. Marty Seifert and state Rep. Kurt Zellers. The winner is expected to take on DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet in November. Also on the primary ballot will be Republican Merrill Anderson.

Johnson nabbed the party's endorsement in May during the state convention in Rochester. But from the start, Honour and Zellers announced they were bypassing the onerous endorsement process and heading straight to the primary. Seifert opted to run in the primary after being unable to win the endorsement.

The four candidates share similar views on issues such as streamlining government regulations and opposing tax increases, but there are some key differences.

Honour describes himself as a political outsider whose business background gives him the skills necessary to make major changes. He said the biggest challenging facing the state is the ever-growing size of government.

"We're letting government get bigger, bigger and bigger and increasingly involved in our lives in a way that is not allowing us to excel the way that we can," he said.

If elected, Honour vowed he would shrink the size of government by rooting out administrative waste, reducing spending on Medicad and eliminating subsidies that benefit one business over another. He'd also push to reduce government regulations and get a right-to-work law passed in the state, which would prohibit employees from being forced to join a union. Honour also supports school vouchers and backs the elimination of teacher tenure.

Most electable?

Johnson makes the case he is the most electable candidate, noting he has a track record of winning support from independents and moderates in elections. The need for more jobs ranks at the top of his priority list. If elected, he said he would focus on improving the state's business climate by lowering and simplifying the state's tax system.

"It's not just whether we have a high income tax rate. I think it's a bigger picture of looking at how we compete with other states, especially in the upper Midwest, when it comes to income tax, corporate tax, property tax and sales tax," Johnson said.

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Another priority would be trying to close the achievement gap when it comes to graduation rates for minority and low-income students. The Plymouth Republican is a big fan of a so-called "parent trigger," which gives parents whose children attend a failing school the option of passing a no-confidence vote. That could lead to major changes at the school or perhaps the creation of a new charter school.

Seifert said a lack of leadership is the biggest challenge facing the state, and he has the real-world experience to get the state back on track. His resume includes having worked in small business, as a public school teacher and in health care, along with his legislative experience.

The Marshall Republican agrees with his fellow candidates that Minnesota needs to streamline its regulatory process to help attract and keep businesses in the state. He also wants to see a greater emphasis on making sure workers' skills match the need, pointing to the current shortage of welders. He also wants big changes to education, including ensuring the school day cannot be shortened any further and that school districts in greater MInnesota get a bigger share of state funding.

"The kids of southeastern Minnesota end up getting the short end of the stick when it comes to funding from the state compared to Minneapolis," he said.

Businesses leaving?

Zellers said he got into the race because of concerns Minnesota is driving away businesses with its tax and regulatory policies. He said he has heard from plenty of voters worried they will have to leave the state for their career.

"It's not just about being competitive with the cheeseheads in Wisconsin. It's about being competitive globally, and if you are the highest taxed, highest regulated and have the most cumbersome process to get through to build a building and expand a company, you are at a competitive disadvantage," Zellers said.

His number one priority would be to get Minnesota out of the top 10 when it comes to tax rates. He is the only candidate to sign a no-new-taxes pledge and would seek to cut the state's income tax rates across the board.

Also on his to-do list would be scrapping an automatic inflator on property taxes for small business owners. Zellers also likes the idea of a parent trigger for failing schools and revamping teacher tenure laws. Unlike his challengers, Zellers said he is the only one who has squared-off against Dayton and won a battle to prevent tax increases -- a reference to his time as speaker of the house and the budget fight that led to the state government shutdown in 2011.


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None of the candidates are fans of Obamacare or the state's health insurance exchange MNsure, but they differ on what to do about it. The next governor likely will have to contend with a DFL-led Senate for the next two years that has supported MNsure.

Even so, Honour vows that if he were elected he would seek to shut down MNsure and reverse the Medicaid expansion, which allowed more low-income Minnesotans to qualify for coverage.

"I would shut down the website and turn it over to the federal exchange, reverse the Medicaid expansion and basically undo the legislation that created MNsure and created this expansion that has us now subsidizing Obamacare to the tune of $400 million over the last legislative session," Honour said.

Johnson said he would apply to the federal government to get a waiver from Obamacare from Minnesota.

"Some people will roll their eyes at that and say, 'That will never happen,' but I'm not willing to just accept that," he said.

If that bid is not successful, Johnson said he would focus on trying to eliminate mandates and limit requirements for plans participating on the MNsure exchange so that consumers have more options.

Zellers also wants to phase out the use of MNsure and would ask the federal government for a waiver from Obamacare. He would seek to allow Minnesotans to buy insurance in the private market while being able to still take advantage of federal tax credits. He'd also push to allow Minnesotans to buy health insurance across state lines.

Seifert advocates a major overhaul of MNsure, including opening up the exchange to more plans in order to encourage more competition. He would also revamp the MNsure board to make sure it includes individuals with experience in the insurance industry.

Destination Medical Center

All of the candidates said they support $585 millionDestination Medical Center project, but some said they have a few concerns with how the legislation was done. In particular, Seifert said he wants to examine the DMC's governing structure to make sure decisions to spend or raise taxes are only being made by elected officials who are accountable to the voters.

"It is the law, so we are going to make it work. My main assurance that I want out of this situation is that any time a dollar is spent that the people spending the money and raising the money have election certificates," Seifert said.

Honour said he supports the project but said DMC should have been considered as part of a broader discussion about the infrastructure needs of the whole state -- not just one city.

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"I do believe the project should have been thought of in the broader context of where to prioritize funding for infrastructure across the whole state. State government shouldn't just react in some random way, in a way that is following random requests that come in," Honour said.

Silica-sand mining

All four candidates also oppose a blanket moratorium on silica-sand mining in southeastern MInnesota. But Johnson did add that he believes local governments should have the right to impose their own mining moratoriums.

"I would not be supportive of the state creating a moratorium or getting involved in that," he said. "I would, however, not as governor feel that the state should get in the way of a local government making that decision."

Zellers said it would be a big mistake to try to block silica sand mining in the state.

"I think that is just wrong-headed," Zellers said. "And if (mining opponents) think that by stopping sand fracking they are going to stop the oil industry in North Dakota, they are kidding themselves because they'll just get sand from someplace else."


There's broad agreement from the four Republicans that the state needs to invest more money into roads and bridges and less into things like high-cost light rail projects.

If elected, Zellers said he would seek to stop construction of a planned $90 millionSenate office building complex if possible and redirect the dollars to transportation infrastructure. Construction is expected to start on the building next month. He'd also seek to create a two-tier prevailing wage system so construction workers in greater Minnesota could be paid a lower wage.

Seifert said he'd require that one-third of all construction-borrowing bills be dedicated to roads and bridges. Honour said his approach would be to make transportation funding a top priority when it comes to determining how state dollars are divvied out. Similarly, Johnson said he would put a greater emphasis on funding roads and bridges and move away from funding expensive alternative forms of transportation like light rail in favor of beefed up bus service.


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