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Governor race mostly about money

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ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's three major governor candidates show a diverse portfolio to voters, who on Tuesday must decide which man would be best at solving the state's worst-ever budget problem.

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Over on the far political right is Tom Emmer, a 49-year-old lawyer and state representative from Delano, a Republican who says that state government spending is out of control. He would limit spending in the next Minnesota two-year budget to revenue the state already expects. He stands against raising taxes and would cut some business taxes.

Equally far to the left is Mark Dayton, 63, who after 30 years in public life voters know better than any other politician on Tuesday's ballot. The Democrat calls for a nearly $2 billion income tax increase on Minnesota couples earning more than $150,000 annually. The Minneapolis apartment resident and department store heir also would raise property taxes on homes worth more than $1 million.

Somewhere in the middle is Tom Horner, 60, of the Independence Party, who blends spending cuts with tax increases, including expanding the sales tax to clothing and some services while trimming the overall rate. He lives in Edina and was an owner of one of the state's most successful public relations agencies. Horner has picked up a lion's share of Minnesota newspaper endorsements, with editorialists saying the state needs someone in the political middle, but no one else from his party is in the Capitol to help if he wins.

The trio has taken part in more than two dozen debates, perhaps a Minnesota record. The budget is so dominant that at times Emmer has refused to discuss other issues.

Many say the budget situation is dire. The way most in the Capitol, including Dayton and Horner, look at it is that the state faces a nearly $6 billion hole in the next budget. Emmer, on the other hand, says there is no deficit if automatic budget increases are dismissed.

The election provides some interesting twists.

For one, there may never have been two major candidates so far apart politically than Dayton and Emmer. Polls show weaker support among their own party members than has been seen for some time, apparently because they are too far left and right even for some in their parties.

Then there is the much-discussed Republican wave that analysts say will sweep the country after voters became disenchanted with Democratic President Barack Obama. There is little sign of that affecting the governor's race.

For Democrats, the election is a matter of pride. They have been out of the governor's office for two decades, leaving the job up to a pair of Republicans and Jesse Ventura of the Independence Party. They are hungry for the Capitol corner office.

Recent polls variously have indicated the race is a dead heat or that Dayton could walk away with a relatively easy victory.

Hamline University professor David Schultz, a long-time political observer, said polls sometimes do not accurately reflect the true political makeup of the state. After looking at data from all the polls, Schultz said that he thinks Dayton leads by 3 points.

Four small-party candidates also are on the ballot and a three write-in hopefuls are running.

Horner, Emmer and Dayton have engaged in civil debate, strongly stating their policy beliefs, but not going personal. Negative advertising in the race has come from groups not formally associated with the campaigns.

The race may well come down to one question for voters: Are they willing to pay more taxes to maintain current state programs? Dayton and Horner think they are; Emmer disagrees.

Dayton began his campaign saying he would rely on taxing rich Minnesotans to provide much of the revenue needed to support spending programs such as education. But a Revenue Department study showed he could only collect $1.9 billion, far less than he wanted. Even with that and other tax increases on the rich and businesses that total $3.6 billion, Dayton's budget plan falls short of plugging he deficit.

Dayton would spend about $38 billion in the next two years.

Much of Emmer's budget fix is cutting programs to fit reach his goal of spending less than $33 billion.

The Republican's basic answer to the problem is to spend no more than taxes and fees already on the books will bring in. He wants to fit some modest business tax cuts into his first budget.

Emmer's plan includes increases in some education and health programs. If that happens, other programs need to face real cuts.

To complicate the situation, many Democrats say they cannot live with Dayton's tax-increase proposals and many Republicans say they do not support Emmer's plan that would result in some large, and as of yet unspecified, cuts.

Horner's budget proposal falls between Dayton and Emmer, but he no legislative constituency as an Independence Party member. To get his budget plan passed, he says he will go above lawmakers' heads and seek public support to pressure legislators.

Horner, a former Republican, suggests expanding the sales tax to clothing and services such as haircuts and also trimming state spending.

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Profiles of the governor candidates and other election news are available at capitolchat.areavoices.com.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co., the parent company of the Woodbury Bulletin.

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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.
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