ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican nominee Jeff Johnson ended their series of debates Friday much like they began, with the incumbent hailing big-picture successes and his rival saying too many things went awry over the past four years.
The fast-paced debate on public television offered a tidy recap to the race that ends with Tuesday’s election. Dayton leaned heavily on swelling employment rolls around Minnesota and a steadied state budget to make his case for another term. Johnson pointed to flaws in Vikings stadium legislation and the health insurance exchange known as MNsure as well as Minnesota’s added reliance on taxes to raise doubts about Dayton.
Dayton, a former U.S. senator and auditor, was in the final debate of a lengthy career. Johnson is a Hennepin County commissioner and former state lawmaker.
Johnson was asked to elaborate on a closing campaign theme that Dayton was either unaware or dodging responsibility of problems on his watch. He cited a farm equipment tax that Dayton pushed to repeal only months after signing it and accused the governor of not driving a hard enough bargain on the football stadium deal that has taxpayers paying about $500 million of the $1 billion cost.
“After 37 years in politics, I don’t think he’s up to the job. I don’t think he’s an engaged governor,” Johnson said.
Dayton shot back that Johnson was a “desperate candidate” quick to take shots and slow to offer alternative proposals for bettering the state.
“Your first ad really described you well. You were down on your stomach looking at every blade of grass and found one of the two that were out of line. So you comment on them,” Dayton said. “My job as governor is to look at the whole lawn. This lawn is really doing very well.”
For the first time in their five debates, the pair was pressed to discuss energy policy and whether it had a role in reversing climate changes.
Dayton praised a move under his predecessor, Republican Tim Pawlenty, to put the state on a track to derive more power from renewable sources such as wind and solar panels. He said he wants to engage utilities about tapering the use of coal with a goal of eventually phasing it out in coming decades. “We can show once again that Minnesota could lead the way there,” he said.
Johnson said he believes humans have a role in climate change, but he’s not yet convinced dramatic policy changes can alter it. He said eliminating fossil fuels such as coal from the mix would have a crushing economic effect.
“It’s just silly. It’s irresponsible. It scores you some political points with environmental groups. But it’s not going to happen and it shouldn’t,” he said.
The candidates weighed in on the standoff in Maine over a health care worker’s confinement upon her return from treating Ebola patients in Africa.
The Dayton administration has set up a voluntary home-confinement and monitoring program for workers in that situation. Dayton said his health commissioner is prepared to take legal action if necessary to protect public health. “If it has to be enforced it would be enforced,” he said.
Johnson said Minnesota’s response to the Ebola threat has been adequate “thus far” but didn’t give his direct opinion on the quarantine. He said he wants Minnesota to set up a special, stand-alone isolation unit to treat anyone diagnosed with the virus because he fears traditional hospitals could lose business if they are associated with Ebola.
Dayton agreed and said those talks are underway.
Both candidates said they supported proposals to allow liquor stores to open on Sundays and grocery stores to sell wine. Neither would back legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
In a Halloween-themed question, both said they were most fond of salted nut roll candy.
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