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From reforming Minnesota’s sales tax to expanding medical marijuana: Jeff Johnson on the issues

MinnPost file photo by Brian Halliday
Jeff Johnson: “I’m realistic enough to realize that MNsure is here for awhile, and Obamacare, well, I can’t do much about that.”

If Republican Jeff Johnson were governor, more sick people would be able to obtain medical marijuana, but fewer people could be able to enroll for health care coverage through MNsure, the state’s exchange. The state’s tax code would likely get a major overhaul, but taxes wouldn’t go up. 

Those are Johnson’s positions on the major issues he may face as governor if he beats incumbent Democrat Mark Dayton this fall. Johnson’s biggest challenge now, besides building name recognition, is creating a contrast between how he would govern and the policies crafted under Dayton over the last four years.

Many of his positions are unsurprising for a GOP nominee for governor (generally: lower taxes and less government), but Johnson also breaks from the standard Republican Party line on a handful of issues. 

Here, a look at where he stands on everything from education funding to the state’s new medical marijuana law:

Education: Johnson made education an early focus of his campaign, but Democrats have tried to use the issue against him, launching attack ads claiming Johnson voted to cut early childhood education funding as a state House member in the early 2000s. 

For his part, Johnson has focused on closing the state’s achievement gap, which is one of the worst in the nation. He says that can be achieved through more local control — allowing schools to hire and fire teachers based on merit, not tenure. He’d also expand the presence of Teach For America in the state, which puts young teachers in troubled inner city schools.

But he doesn’t propose fixing the gap by increasing funding — for the most part. “I don’t think it’s all about money. That has been our answer over the last 30 years, to increase funding, and that’s not solving the problem. I fully recognized that certain districts, particularly in the inner city, have needs that other areas of the state don’t have. We have to recognize that, and I do,” Johnson said.

But he noted that Minneapolis school districts receive far more funding than the average state school district, but the gaps persist. “What we ought to be doing is looking to other states around us who have been successful in narrowing the achievement gap and try some of the things they are doing,” he added. “If some of them cost money, I’m OK with that, if we can show they are actually improving results.”

Tax reform: It’s not yet clear what the next budget facing lawmakers will look like. For now, economists are predicting a sizable surplus for the 2016-2017 budgeting year, but the revenues have come in under projections for the last several months.

Johnson admits he won’t spend much time planning his budget until he sees the numbers, but he does think Dayton missed an opportunity in the area of tax reform during his first term. “He had this dream scenario that any governor would want: to truly really rewrite the tax code to make it competitive, and that’s what he told us he was going to do,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he’s open to pursuing sales tax reform, an issue that got Dayton in trouble in 2013 when he proposed to lower the overall sales tax rate and broaden it to new items. At the time, Republicans went after the first-term DFLer for proposing to add the sales tax to everything from wedding dresses (clothing purchases of $100 or more) to car repairs and haircuts.

“I would be open to looking at almost anything, but the direction I would move would be that philosophy of low, broad and simple, with low being the most important of the three,” he said. “You are not going to see a tax increase, but there’s a lot of reform that we can make and still actually lower taxes for people.”

MNsure: Johnson is also more hard-nosed than most Republicans on the state’s health exchange, MNsure, though he also acknowledged that his powers to change the already-running program are limited. He would apply for a waiver from the exchange from the federal government, but if that doesn’t happen, Johnson says he’d try to improve MNsure. “I’m realistic enough to realize that MNsure is here for awhile, and Obamacare, well, I can’t do much about that,” he said. 

As long as the exchange is around, Johnson said he would change the makeup of the MNsure board, which governs the exchange. Johnson would add people who have “experience in the healthcare industry” — for example, representatives from insurance agencies. He would also tighten rules around what the board is authorized to do or change in regards to the exchange.

“They are able to make rules with respect to MNsure in ways that no other agency has been allowed to do,” Johnson said. “They don’t have to go through the normal process of public input and public hearings.”

Gay marriage: Legal same-sex marriage is the law of the land now in Minnesota, and Johnson has no intention of changing that as governor. “I think religious freedom should always be a concern for people, and if we are seeing examples where peoples religious freedoms are being infringed, we absolutely need to address it, but this is not going to be a priority for me,” he said. “Minnesotans have made a decision, and I believe most Minnesotans, including those who support traditional marriage, are ready to move on to other topics.”

Minnesota Sex Offender Program: Minnesota’s sex offender treatment program in Moose Lake and St. Peter has always been controversial, but the issue may soon come to a head.

A class action lawsuit on behalf of all the nearly 700 clients in MSOP, currently pending in federal court, argues the program is administered unconstitutionally because it offers treatment with no promise of ever getting out of the prison-like facility (no one has ever been unconditionally released from the program in its nearly 20-year history). U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank has said the program raises serious constitutional questions, and he could act on his own if lawmakers don’t try to fix the problem. But releasing sex offenders has always turned political in the hands of legislators and gubernatorial administrations.

Johnson said Dayton punted on the issue during his first term as governor, asking the Legislature to find a solution. “Dayton hasn’t shown leadership because it’s just a really tough political issue, and he’s just unwilling to take that risk,” Johnson said. “What I’ve said consistently on this is I’m not going to use the issue as a political football. I think both sides have done that to a certain extent.”

But while Johnson said he would listen to both parties on the issue before acting, he wouldn’t cite any specific solutions he favors.  Some have proposed creating a less-restrictive living facility for offenders off of the MSOP campus in Moose Lake, while others would rather change the system to cut back on the number of offenders being committed to the program in the first place. “I’m open to practically anything as a starting point on this, but I think what we’ve got to do is hammer something out that everyone can live with,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to try and dictate the outcome. Then…the DFL will attack me for it and say we can’t go there and we end up in the same spot we are right now.” 

Transportation/infrastructure: Johnson agrees that Minnesota’s next governor will have to deal with the state’s growing transportation and infrastructure needs across the state — some groups put the price tag as high as $6 billion — but he’s not willing to support a gas tax increase to pay for the improvements.

“To argue that we don’t have the money to do the very fundamental job of government, like keeping our roads and bridges safe and adequate, is a bit out of touch for politicians,” Johnson said.

Johnson agrees that roads and bridges should be a priority —  “that’s one of the few, if not possibly the only area, where I think we aren’t spending enough money,” he said. Johnson said he would take the focus off of things like light rail transit and street cars and put roads and bridges back at the top of the list, but he’s not willing to support a gas tax to pay for improvements.

To pump more money into projects, Johnson said he’d explore finding a constitutional way to increase the amount of bonding money dedicated just to roads and bridges. “If there’s any project that is regional or statewide in significance for the long term — which is what a bonding bill is for — it’s roads and bridges,” Johnson said. “This might require a constitutional change to do in any significant way, but that’s something I am willing to do” (Johnson thinks there may be some constitutional barriers to using general obligations bonds for road projects).

Cutting government spending: To pump more money into roads and bridges, Johnson also proposes making cuts to the state’s budget elsewhere, particularly in the health and human services. It’s the second largest area of the state’s budget and is “completely out of whack” compared to other similar state’s spending, he said.

“There are a lot of programs where we are funding them because we always have rather than measuring them to see if they are doing what we want them to,” Johnson said. 

Off the bat, Johnson would look at cutting the State Health Improvement Program (SHIP), which sends tens of millions of dollars a year to local governments to “tell people how to eat healthier and how to exercise more,” Johnson said. “I’m not sure if that should be a top priority when we claim we don’t have enough money to repair potholes.”

He’d also like to take a look at the state’s job training programs. While the programs are important, he said he sees a lot of overlap at the county level. “There are so many programs and you can’t keep track of them and one doesn’t know what the other is doing,” he said. “We are not being at all efficient.”

Medical marijuana: Much like Dayton, Johnson doesn’t support full recreational legalization of marijuana, but he said he would support expanding the state’s current medical law to allow more people with serious illness to use the drug. 

“I would support an expansion to help more people as long as I was absolutely confident it wasn’t a back doorway for recreational legalization for some people. We have seen that in some other states, like California, where their medical marijuana law is really a joke,” Johnson said. He said he would support expanded, but still strict medical marijuana laws that only allows it to be disbursed from a doctor a patient already has a relationship with. 

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Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/17/2014 - 09:47 am.

    Magic and more magic

    Education…. well the guy claims we’ve always thrown more money at education… after voting to cut education spending and taking education funding to fill budget gaps created elsewhere by tax cuts.

    Speaking of tax cuts… despite the fact that magic tax cuts don’t work… let’s try it again and call it “tax reform”.

    Tax cuts and borrowing worked so well let’s lets change the State Constitution so we can do it some more. Assuming budget perpetual budget crises and deficit is your idea of “working”.

    Smaller government… THAT’S new.

  2. Submitted by Dan Landherr on 09/17/2014 - 09:58 am.

    Not really a surprise but not a good idea

    Can’t say I like the idea of letting the insurance companies run MNSure.

  3. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 09/17/2014 - 10:16 am.

    Yeah let’s build more roads

    On the backs of poor disadvantaged people by cutting their required health and human services. How typical a solution for this “moral” Republican. Take money from the kids’ education funds while you’re at it. Keep waving that fairy wand Johnson

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 09/23/2014 - 08:29 am.

      Roads

      Our roads need roughly a billion dollars a year just to maintain what we’ve got. That does not include funds to build new roads and bridges.

      Johnson, I’m sure, has read many of the same reports and articles you and I have, so he knows this already. A billion is a lot of money and he’s not going to pick it up by shuffling a few taxes sround, splitting the code while keeping it revenue neutral, or axing a program here and there. That’s why we saw Pawlenty borrowing money from schools and putting off road projects as deferred maintenance. If he had better options, he would have used them.

      So it is with Johnson. He’s under the misconception that there are programs to be cut that are unnecessary. But all those programs serve the very constituents who vote for him. Cut his voter’s favorite program and he won’t be in office too much longer. Yet it’s the Republican perception that there’s a lot of waste in the system, even though there’s no data to back up the claim.

      Personally, I disagree with both Johnson and Dayton. I think we should bump the gas tax to help roads and at the same time bump the seven county transit tax from 1/4 cent to 1 & 1/4 cents. The former will help out the road backlog. And the latter will put us on par with conservative areas like Dallas and Utah so we can rapidly flesh out our mass transit system. Building one line every twenty years just isn’t cutting it.

      Some people will say that raising the gas tax is a declining solution as cars become more efficient and people drive less. And they would be right. But that is a long term trend and we need solutions in place yesterday for our roads. No mention that you’ll rarely find a single solution that will fix any given problem. In most cases you need a mix of solutions I order to reach your goal.

      It’s no different here.

  4. Submitted by E Gamauf on 09/18/2014 - 07:48 am.

    Made me laugh

    Hey Paul, you are fun to read.

    “Smaller government… THAT’S new.”

    Poignant & funny, both.
    ____________________

    As for the rest of it:
    “Waiting to see what the budget looks like” – is just a more palatable way of saying zero about the budget; he didn’t bid his hand & he didn’t show his cards. So we know know very little there. Support him on a mystery hand??

    His accusing the incumbent Governor of playing it safe – is ludicrous. They want to hit Dayton with 2 opposite conclusions, from the same record & data!

    If anyone went far afield of what a large segment of the public wanted, he’d be called rogue.

    Dayton has done pretty well.
    GOP’s main hope is to stymie his reelection by confusing the voters, which plays the voters as patsies. They can do that in some states, but I’m not convinced the voters in Minnesota are quite that gullible.

    Yet, the Republicans seem to defy the public’s fairly positive view on healthcare!

    As for gas taxes – I’m not crazy about it, but the argument has always been that “USER FEES” (shades of Pawlenty) should be the way to go.

    If JJ doesn’t want to charge transportation-related items, where would money for transportation come from – the schools, again?

  5. Submitted by E Gamauf on 09/17/2014 - 10:33 am.

    Always easy to support what is already law of the land!

    OK, gay marriage hasn’t impacted any heterosexuals.
    Can’t say the sky is falling any more, when its obviously not.

    Nobody straight has gone gay, because of gay rights.

    Medical marijuana is going to happen, albeit in a strait jacket.
    There’s a lot of people behind that. OK, not hard to be OK with that policy.

    Its nice to see Johnson realizes those fights are gone & his party lost to public will. However, I can’t distill a real substantial list out of his comments quoted above! He didn’t say much of anything.

    But take away healthcare & fill a pothole in the street?
    We kinda need both, don’t we? Who hates healthcare?

  6. Submitted by Dee Ann Christensen on 09/17/2014 - 11:03 am.

    How’s this for a punt?

    “he wouldn’t cite any specific solutions he favors”

    Nuff said!

    • Submitted by E Gamauf on 09/18/2014 - 08:14 am.

      Vaguely, he’d Rewrite Tax Code

      what does he mean to “make it competitive?”

      That phrase is just another Powerpoint or Sales Brochure buzzword!!!

      You’re expected to flesh out a buzzword inside your own head with whatever makes you happy.
      If that construct has anything to do with what he means – you aren’t supposed to know.

      Buy the grab bag first, contents unseen.
      I believe an alternate phrase is to “buy a pig in a poke.”

  7. Submitted by David Broden on 09/17/2014 - 11:09 am.

    JOhnson Establishes a Dialogue on Key Issues

    Jeff Johnson has now set a portion of the campaign agenda– I agree with the thoughts in many of his position but may differ in how the details are moved forward. This is a good framework for discussion in the next 6 weeks. One comment regarding most of these topics is that both Johnson and Dayton seem to easily focus on Management issues which most of these are — now let’s get to leadership– leadership will shape MN for the future- what is the vision- how will economic development be enabled- if human capital is the core of MN how do we prepare the human capital for the future-not just today– The decision for governor in 2014 election must be based on the future of MN not just today– I am sure Johnson has input in these areas — lets elevate leadership topics– vision of Human Capital, economic development etc. while strengthening MN core quality of life. A theme with that message will resonate with voters and evolve the winner.

    Dave Broden

  8. Submitted by jody rooney on 09/17/2014 - 12:29 pm.

    I have to agree with him on one point

    it is time to review state spending programs and see if they are effective and where they are effective.

    Every program helps someone, at least I hope it does beyond funding the salaries of the administrators. But while a program maybe one of many in the metro serving a category of needs of it may be the only program in Roseau County.

    Bias alert here: I am an economist and this is what we do but I think there is some value in getting beyond the drama of a program and the emotional appeal.

    The Washington State Institute of Public Policy http://www.wsipp.wa.gov/
    does benefit cost analysis on various public policies.

    By the way benefit cost analysis is the correct tool for public policy analysis and possibly non profit analysis not return on investment. Sorry Art Rolnick – you have led people down the wrong path on this one -yes it is a better sell to bankers and business people but goes against at least against 60 years of methods development starting with the green book.

    A quick look at the Benefit Cost Results show the results of various programs that might be worth investigating. The programs are ranked by net benefits which is a better measure than benefit cost ratio “which is returns ____dollars for every dollar spent” and is now how these studies are being described. Take a look at the pre K-12 studies and see that the positive behavior programs have a lower unit cost and return more benefits than early ed which ranks second. One would have to look into the detailed analysis of both programs (evaluating early education has a pretty established methodology) and evaluate the research behind the results but it is certainly something to think about.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/17/2014 - 05:35 pm.

      Good idea, it’s just not Johnson’s idea

      We do these reviews all the time, and then we argue about them, and legislators do whatever they do. Dayton implemented one of those top-to-bottom reviews in his first year I think. Administrative costs for the government are quite low compared to the private sector, 96%-98% of all the revenue collected goes back out in services.

      The problem with republicans is that such “reviews” usually just amount cutting budgets for programs they don’t like, like food stamps, no matter what the return is.

      The upshot is, if you think it’s a good idea, you’re more likely to get a good evidenced based review out of democrats than republicans.

      • Submitted by Mark Kulda on 09/21/2014 - 12:36 pm.

        You are forgetting to rank efficiency

        You make the false claim that administrative expenses of government services are low (which you cite but don’t back up with proof), but you are neglecting to consider efficiency, which is very important in evaluating which services need to be reformed to make them a better value for the taxpayer.

        • Submitted by jason myron on 09/23/2014 - 04:54 pm.

          Listen…

          after forty years of working in the private sector, I can tell you flat out that they have no high ground to stand on when it comes to efficiency. There’s plenty of waste in the private sector…usually from MBA types.

    • Submitted by john herbert on 09/18/2014 - 03:06 pm.

      I agree

      Thank you Jody. I teach an Intro to Economics class and somehow Cost-Benefit analysis is embedded in every lesson/analysis.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/17/2014 - 12:39 pm.

    We’ve gone there.. and it sucked

    I must say it does actually surprise me a little to see a republican candidate this oblivious.

    There’s a story about Bill Clinton, He’s a former US president that produced budget surpluses and a stable economy. Someone asked him what was his strategy, what was it that he brought to the table that seemed to work so well. He had a one word answer: “Arithmetic”.

    We need $6 billion for roads, just to maintain what we have. No need to raise taxes, Johnson’s gonna pay for it by taking money away from other government services. Well, those services need the money their getting, and probable more. Government does stuff that costs money and the cost of doing stuff is not going down.

    And don’t talk to me about inefficiency because the republicans don’t have clue. Pawlenty spent 8 years tracking down inefficiencies you know what he came up with? $90 million dollars. We have a $30 billion annual budget and he came up with $11 million a year in “waste”. OK, let’s put ALL of that towards the roads we just need to come up with $5.1 BILLION more.

    We’ve been where this magical thinking takes us and wasn’t good. Shut downs, budget crises, and collapsing bridges. How do you think our roads got this crappy in the first place? Twelve years of gimmicks and creative accounting that’s how. Remember Molnau’s big idea to get road money up front from the contractors?

    For thousands of years governments have understood that you pay for the stuff government does by collecting taxes. I don’t know why republican politicians have missed that fact.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 09/23/2014 - 08:04 am.

      Math

      Your Vlinton story reminds me of the time I was standing in line for a book signing for Gen Paul Tibnits. He’ the guy who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima during the war. The gentleman in line in front of me asked the general “how did you know you were far enough away from the bomb blast so it didn’t knock you out of the air?”

      The general’s grad snapped up from signing the book with a look on his face that said “I’m dealing with a complete moron.” As he handed the book back he barked at the guy “ya ever hear of a thing called trigonometry?”

      I’ll always treasure my copy of the book just for that story.

  10. Submitted by David Broden on 09/17/2014 - 03:30 pm.

    Consider Redesign of Government for Better Services

    Anyone can look to cut or to save– another approach is to look to deliver services in a better way– This is REDESIGN– both DFL and GOP have expressed interest and various Foundations and Political Wonks talk a good story on Redesign but the state has only nibbled at the edges. If MN really wants to have an impact let’s get serious about REDESIGN— and set a goal of REDESIGN for a purpose or REDESIGN for What- Where What is better service to people. There are many solid redesign concepts but no one is really committed to make it happen. A great approach would be to Recognize and implement redesign that works for the economy and social structure of Mn in the future 20-40 years- tie some vision to that and some innovation will occur. Can any readers of this join the message and help push the candidates in that direction.,

    Dave Broden

    • Submitted by E Gamauf on 09/17/2014 - 04:50 pm.

      What exactly is “REDESIGN” — except a word?

      “Get serious about Redesign” – is just a hollow slogan.
      Its an excuse to rip up what may already work, under the pretense of doing something new.

      • Submitted by David Broden on 09/17/2014 - 05:39 pm.

        Redesing is a Real Effort in Innovation for Government Approach

        If you have doubts or would like to know more about the in-depth work done for redesign contact you legislator or perhaps better yet some of the serious foundations and thoughtful non-profit think tanks in the area– there are impacting approaches – and I will agree many that just speak to the term. I like to think that of 10 redesign concepts 1-2 will be beneficial. I have been involved with many and the spectrum of idea is wide but sort our the weak ones and there is actionable work.

        Dave Broden

  11. Submitted by E Gamauf on 09/17/2014 - 04:47 pm.

    Hating Health Care. & What’s It All About, Jeffie?

    “But he doesn’t propose fixing the gap by increasing funding — for the most part.”

    This is not about money?

    “…proposes making cuts to the state’s budget elsewhere, particularly in the health and human services…”

    All these guys who hate healthcare – for OTHER people,
    pretty much all have health care INSURANCE themselves, I’ll wager.

    Why do they loathe it when other people have health insurance?

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 09/18/2014 - 08:01 pm.

      Because

      Then their corporate masters can’t compel those people to work for lower and lower wages out of debt induced desperation. They have to come out and actually explain why they feel their employees are worthless widgets to be disposed of on a whim.

      • Submitted by E Gamauf on 09/23/2014 - 08:51 am.

        Ouch. That’s too simplistic & conspiratorial

        I’m not sure what you are saying & how it tracks.

        The Insurance Industry should give us a double-take. Yes.

        Although, I can’t quite believe that there is a secret group of industrialists meeting
        in order to decide how to foist the worst possible outcomes on Americans.

        I don’t think it serves anyone in the long run to demonize it far out of proportion.

        Market forces are a very simplistic mindset, because the goal is to make money, first & foremost.
        They have no charter to care about what is Left Behind. That is not the same as Intent.

        Meanwhile, back at the Ranch:

        “He said he would support expanded, but still strict medical marijuana laws that only allows it to be disbursed from a doctor a patient already has a relationship with.”

        I don’t believe it. The “expanded” [curiously under-defined] law he says that he is in favor of,
        is another hollow election promise, geared to drawing young voters to him.

        I’m waiting to hear about a Medical Marijuana Tax.
        Uh, a “USER FEE” as Tim Pawlenty was so fond of, saying.

        If a doctor has to be present to administer the dose,
        does a tax collector too, need to be present in the room?

  12. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 09/21/2014 - 12:21 pm.

    Sure……

    More republican ‘sweet talk’. History ( remember the Pawlenty/republican ligislature fiasco) shows that what comes out of republican candidate mouths during the campaign seldom happens unless it is a tax break for the republican donors.

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