Put three candidates on a dais and put questions to them about children, and there are only so many “right” answers — right? Indeed, gubernatorial hopefuls Tom Emmer, Tom Horner and Mark Dayton have agreed that children are our futures so many times in the current campaign season that pretty much nothing can knock them off their right-minded messages.
Not even a heckler waving a sparkly, pink-clad Dora the Explorer doll.
About halfway into a lunch-hour forum on children’s issues held today at the Minnesota Children’s Museum, a young man leapt onto the stage, pulled the squeaky-voiced doll from a messenger bag, and shoved it into Emmer’s lap, shouting something about deportation.
As she whisked the toy away, moderator and MinnPost journalist Roxane Battle asked, “Where were we?”
The audience cracked up, in part in response to the fact that the candidates knew exactly where they were. “He was criticizing my budget,” a laughing Horner shot back, pointing at Emmer.
‘Better than the pennies’
Grinning, Emmer got in a quip of his own: “It was better than the pennies,” he said, in reference to a July episode — where the same immigration activist, Nick Espinosa, poured 2,000 coins on the table in front of him — before resuming his dissection of Horner’s proposal midsentence.
To keep Minnesota vital, the state’s children need cradle-to-career education, affordable health care and working parents, the candidates have now agreed in forum after forum. They continue to have few points of agreement, however, on just how to pay for those bright futures.
Republican Tom Emmer favors stimulating job creation by cutting both business taxes and government spending.
Independence Party candidate Tom Horner’s plan would put new money into children’s welfare, among other things, by expanding the sales tax, increasing taxes on cigarettes and alcohol and opening a racino.
DFL nominee Mark Dayton would raise income taxes on wealthier Minnesotans, open a casino and cut spending.
Horner, Dayton would reverse Pawlenty’s Medicaid decision
Both Horner and Dayton said they would reverse Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s decision to opt out of $430 million in federal early Medicaid enrollment money over the next three years. Nearly half of Minnesotans served by Medicaid are under 18, Dayton noted, estimating that the governor’s decision costs the state nearly $900,000 a day.
Both men would also act to contain costs. “We need to be honest with Minnesota,” Horner added. “What we’ve done is shift the cost to other people.”
“We don’t need more revenue,” said Emmer. “How are you actually going to do this? You have a $2.5 billion hole in your budget, Mr. Dayton. You’ve got the same thing, Mr. Horner; your budget is short $1 billion.”
Emmer said his budget would increase health and human services funding by $650 million, but insisted the real problem is, again, jobs. “Why do we have this problem?” he asked. “Fewer and fewer people employed means more people in need of state services.”
A question of how
All three candidates agreed that more high-quality early childhood education is needed if the achievement gap is to be closed. While his budget does not include new funding to start, Dayton said he would direct the first dollars available once the budget shortfall had been made up to pre-K programming. His second priority would be restoring higher-education funding.
In Emmer’s opinion, funding isn’t the issue. “We have been pumping a lot of money into the achievement gap and it hasn’t been working,” he said.
“I’m going to guess there are a lot of people in this room who are surprised to hear we’ve been throwing all kinds of money at this problem,” countered Horner, who would increase spending on early childhood education right away.
All three agreed that there should be some mechanism for evaluating the quality of early childhood programs, but differed on what that should look like. Dayton was wary of creating a complicated and rigid state rating system, and warned that it would be easy to repeat the mistakes of George Bush’s controversial No Child Left Behind education reform, which looks at aggregate data on outcomes instead of progress by individual children.
Horner favors a rating system as well as quality criteria spelled out by the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation, one of the sponsors of the debate, as well as finding creative ways of delivering early ed, such as “Age 3 to Grade 3,” a program he toured in Fair Oaks Elementary School in Osseo. “We need to try new things,” he said.
Horner would raise cigarette tax
Education isn’t the only factor behind the achievement gap, Horner added. Nutrition and health care also matter. His budget would raise the tax on a pack of cigarettes by $1.50.
“We support cheap calories in this country,” said Horner. “We’ve made it hard for schools to support physical fitness.”
Dayton favors revamping school nutrition programs to rely less on packaged and unhealthy foods. He also would make sure schools and preschools teach kids about healthy choices.
By contrast, Emmer would prefer to get government out of the arena of personal responsibility. The state, he said, should give up on “making sure we can protect ourselves from our own bad behavior.”
“I can take care of myself and my family,” he said.
The most surprising question of the forum was posed by Eric Dahlquist, a high-school student and member of the Youth Advisory Council, a group of families whose children are current or former patients at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics, another debate sponsor. (MinnPost was the third.)
A question on priorities
Given a recent Star Tribune report noting that in the next decade the number of seniors will outstrip the number of children in Minnesota, how would the candidates prioritize state services, Dahlquist asked.
Emmer’s answer: Jobs will draw young families. “Once we start to grow jobs in this state this will be the land of promise it once was,” he said.
“This question gets right to a critical difference between Mark Dayton, Tom Emmer and Tom Horner,” Horner said, explaining that he would revamp the way the state delivers services to the elderly to create more cost-effective community services so people can age in place.
Dayton, too, would look for ways to reduce the amount Minnesota spends on nursing-home care. “Almost 80 percent of the budget goes to education and health and human services,” he said in his closing remarks. “So probably 60 percent of the budget goes to children, and I think that’s appropriate.”