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Forum shows slight differences among governor candidates

Rep. Tom Rukavina, the shortest Minnesota governor candidate at 5-foot-3, is the center of attention before a Wednesday forum. With him are Reps. Tom Emmer and Margaret Anderson Kelliher. Don Davis/Minn. State Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL -- Tom Rukavina did not mince words in Minnesota's first gubernatorial forum featuring candidates from both major parties.

"I am going to tax everybody in this room," the Virginia, Minn., Democratic state representative declared.

He promised that if elected he would raise taxes on the richest Minnesotans more than others, but all Minnesotans would pay an income tax surcharge.

Other Democrats, including wealthy Mark Dayton, were willing to up taxes on the wealthy, but less prone to go as far as Rukavina.

Still, Democratic-Farmer-Laborites at the forum agreed they would raise taxes to fix the state's budget problem. The difference among them was a matter of degree.

On the Republican side, there was less difference. GOP candidates agreed that keeping taxes low and reducing regulation are the best ways to bring more jobs to the state, and increasing the number of jobs is the best way to help Minnesotans.

Eleven candidates attended Wednesday's Hunger Solutions Minnesota forum in St. Paul's River Centre, including most of those considered front-runners. They answered questions for 90 minutes in front of a crowd that dwindled to fewer than 100 by the time the forum ended.

It was an afternoon of subtle differentiating among candidates, even though moderator Mary Lahammer of Twin Cities Public Television several times tried to get candidates to contrast themselves with fellow party members.

Margaret Anderson Kelliher sat between liberal and conservative gubernatorial candidates and said it was an appropriate location.

"I think I'm between these two guys because I think that is kinda where I am, between Tom Emmer and John Marty, in the political spectrum," the Democratic House speaker said.

Emmer is a conservative Republican legislator from Delano, Marty a liberal Roseville senator. And while Republicans would put Kelliher, of Minneapolis, on the left side of the political arena, her comment pointed out that Minnesota's 20 governor candidates provide their parties and voters choices for the November 2010 election.

Dayton, a former U.S. senator and state official, said the key to his budget plan is to raise taxes on Minnesotans in the top 10 percent of income. Kelliher and Marty agreed with increasing the wealthy's taxes more than others, but did not rule out other tax increases.

Many Democrats avoided answering Lahammer's question about what taxes they would raise, but after a bit of prodding some admitted any tax could be considered.

Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, for instance, told Lahammer: "A 30-second, two-word answer is part of the problem." But she said she would consider increasing any taxes.

Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis called for overhauling the state's tax system, refusing to list specific tax increases.

Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook suggested that the state look at restoring income tax cuts made in recent years. While not being specific, Bakk said he understands that businesses need to be considered when deciding on taxes. "I'm a different kind of Democrat."

Republicans, on the other hand, stuck together in saying taxes should not be raised.

"It is not a matter of raising taxes," Emmer said. "You have got to cut taxes."

Rep. Marty Seifert of Marshall emphasized the need to bolster Minnesota business.

"Everything needs to be done through the lens of economic growth," Seifert said.

Sen. Michael Jungbauer of East Bethel, long involved in the ministry, complained that government has taken over charitable works from the faith community and in doing so increased state spending.

"We need to clear the way for private donations..." he said. "The citizens will come to the aid of their friends and neighbors."

Frequent candidate Leslie Davis, running as a Republican after years when people thought he was a Democrat, agreed with GOP candidates more than he did Democrats.

"A rising economy raises everybody," Davis said.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.