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From legalizing pot to eliminating the corporate tax: IP candidate for governor Hannah Nicollet on the issues

In the long tradition of Independence Party candidates in Minnesota, Nicollet is espousing ideas not often uttered by the GOP and DFL candidates.

Hannah Nicollet: "I don’t know if I want the government running health insurance when they haven’t been that efficient in other areas."

If Hannah Nicollet had her way, Minnesota would be the third state to legalize recreational marijuana. The Independence Party gubernatorial candidate also believes anyone charged with possession of the drug should be pardoned for the offense.

In the long tradition of Independence Party candidates in Minnesota, Nicollet is espousing ideas on the campaign trail not often uttered by candidates from the other two major parties — proposals that don’t fit squarely on any particular side of political spectrum. Nicollet, a software developer by trade, supports investing in roads and bridges, is pro-mining and wants to eliminate corporate taxes in the state. But she wouldn’t try to get rid of MNsure, and says Minnesota should look beyond its borders for policy solutions that are working in other states and countries.

“As a software developer, if we have problems to solve we would look for a tool or an application that was already doing what we wanted to do, and to whatever extent we could, not try and reinvent the wheel,” she said. “If we have problems to solve and someone has already done it, why legislate in a vacuum?”

Here’s a look at where she stands on taxes, the budget and other major issues that will face Minnesota’s next governor: 

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Taxes: Nicollet’s biggest complaint on the campaign trail so far has been, as she sees it, stagnant private sector growth that has led to thousands of Minnesotans who are underemployed. She has consistently pitched a dramatic solution to the problem — completely eliminate Minnesota’s corporate tax to make the state friendly for businesses to expand here.

“Right now we have the third highest corporate income tax in the nation, at 9.8 percent, and it is also the most costly to collect. Businesses spend most of the time trying to comply with it and trying to get deductions,” Nicollet said. “The total revenue that it amounts to in our state budget is only 4 percent. It’s only a small part of our budget and it makes things a lot less business friendly. I’d like to do what Ireland did in the 90s and just eliminate it.” [Note: Ireland does, in fact, have a corporate tax.]

Budget: Nicollet isn’t specific when it comes to where she would cut in the budget to make up for lost revenue from cutting taxes, though she believes eliminating the corporate tax will increase activity in the private sector. “People always look at revenue like it’s a fixed pie. Revenue is not a fixed pie, it changes all the time,” she said. “Taxes influence behavior. If you are strategic about how you make tax cuts then you can influence behavior.” 

If she’s lucky enough to have a surplus to spend as governor, Nicollet said she would put nearly all that money into the state’s deteriorating roads and bridges. She would also support increasing revenue to pay for additional infrastructure improvements, but she wouldn’t specify how she would raise the money or how much she would raise. “Every year we don’t [fix infrastructure] it it’s costing us money. I would try to get that started as quickly as possible, but within reason,” she said. “You don’t want to put your whole state under construction at one time. I would project out four years to get all of the work done.”

Education: Education spending and policies have become the centerpiece of this year’s gubernatorial campaign, particularly how to address Minnesota’s achievement gap, one of the worst in the nation. Nicollet doesn’t believe money is the problem — Minnesota dedicates the largest portion of the budget to education. “We clearly care about it and we are making it a huge priority, but we haven’t been strategic about it,” she said.

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She said she would start by giving school districts more independence to address the individual needs of their students. The achievement gap is a problem across the state, but the approach to fixing it could be different in an urban district than in a school in rural Minnesota, she said. “A lot of time we have these one-size-fits-all kind of solutions, like Common Core, and clearly one size doesn’t fit all or we wouldn’t have the achievement gap that we do,” she said.  “I would like to see more autonomy where kids can have their needs met — their local, individual, community, cultural needs — addressed right in their school district, and they haven’t had the freedom to do that.”

Nicollet also isn’t eager to continue tuition freezes at the state’s public colleges and universities. Those institutions regularly get state money thrown their way, she said, but they’ve done little to cut administrative and other costs to keep tuition down over time. “Now our state institutions are building things like health clubs and we keep giving them money in our bonding bill to building more buildings,” she said. “But it looks like they haven’t been forced to innovate.” 

Sex offender treatment: Minnesota’s controversial treatment program for dangerous sex offenders will be in the spotlight in February, when a federal judge takes up a class action lawsuit alleging the program is unconstitutional. At the crux of their argument is a startling statistic — in the nearly 20-year history of the Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program (MSOP), only one person has been successfully released from the prison-like facilities in Moose Lake and St. Peter. Nearly everyone in the program has already served their prison sentences.

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Reforms to deal with the constitutional issue of locking up people indefinitely in the program have stalled in the Legislature, despite warnings from U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank that he could take action if lawmakers don’t. For Nicollet, the solution isn’t in a dramatic overhaul of the program, but simply increasing accountability at the judicial level. Judges in each county review cases and recommend prisoners for treatment in the program, and Nicollet would like more public information available about these decisions and the judges who make them.

“It’s a solution that comes on the end of something that should have been solved in the beginning. We have no accountability in the judicial process,” Nicollet said. “You can’t even look anyone up who are giving out these sentences. I want to bring more transparency to our judicial branch. They have the least amount of accountability of any branch of government in the state.” 

Marijuana: On the national level, Nicollet’s views on marijuana are becoming less radical. Two states have already legalized recreational marijuana and others have decriminalized it, but Minnesota was slow to open its doors to even medical marijuana. This spring lawmakers passed the most restrictive medical marijuana law in the nation.

“Obviously I take drug abuse seriously, but marijuana in particular doesn’t make anyone violent and it doesn’t kill anyone, whereas someone dies every 19 minutes from a prescription drug,” Nicollet said. “And their kids are my other concern. I know people who are very good parents who smoke pot, and then we have kids paying the price in foster care. Being taken out of your home is very traumatic.” 

“Treating drugs as a criminal issue versus a public health issue has so many unintended consequences,” she continued. “It’s dangerous to the people who get raided, it’s dangerous to the officers, and all for what? You are terrorizing people on the state’s dime.”

MNsure: Nicollet finds herself somewhere in the middle of the debate over MNsure, the state’s health insurance exchange. On one hand she wants the program to continue, unlike most Republicans, but she doesn’t want to push it on Minnesotans who aren’t interested. “We need to focus on just those who need subsidies. I don’t know if I want the government running health insurance when they haven’t been that efficient in other areas. I don’t want us to create another payment at the state that we can’t afford to pay,” Nicollet said. “I want to keep people who needs subsides on the exchange, but not push it on everyone.”

She’d also like to open up the possibility to shop for insurance from other states and move Minnesota away from employment-based insurance coverage. “Nowadays people change jobs so much, so if you lose your doctor every time you change jobs it doesn’t make sense.”

Mining: When it comes to the controversial PolyMet non-ferrous mining project on the Iron Range, which environmentalists fear could pollute the area’s pristine lakes, Nicollet finds herself on the side of the miners. “They need the jobs in outstate Minnesota,” she said. “Economically, our rural areas are the ones hurting.”

Her biggest concern is getting PolyMet to commit to covering the costs that come when the mine is used up. “It costs about $200 million to close a mine and $6 to $7 million every year after that for maintenance. And that could go on for a couple hundred years,” she said. “The problem is when mining companies declare bankruptcy at the end and the state is stuck with those costs. We want to make sure that they really have the money to do the end care.”