Republican governor candidates split over rural issues
By Don Davis / Forum Capitol Bureau
ST. PAUL — 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 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 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.