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The First Debate
By Laura McCallum
September 18, 2000
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U.S. Senate candidates Rod Grams, Mark Dayton and James Gibson discussed health care, taxes and Social Security at the first post-primary debate. Grams and Dayton were at odds on nearly every issue. Gibson, the Independence Party candidate, often found himself agreeing with Grams, although the two differed over tax relief.

Listen to the entire debate.
THE FIRST DEBATE OF THE GENERAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN took place before an audience of about 200 Minnesota Chamber of Commerce members. Republican Senator Rod Grams, who's seeking his second term, played to the business crowd by attacking DFLer Mark Dayton's plan to provide universal health care coverage through employer mandates. He dubbed Dayton's plan "Hillary Care," a reference to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's failed 1993 universal health care proposal.

"Mark lays out all these mandates for employers. Who's going to carry out these mandates? Who's going to impose the certain kind of coverage and to make sure that it's carried? It would be the government that would do that for you. When he talks about the bureaucrats who would manage it, he admits that the government is not a good manager, and yet, his plan would put the government in control of this type of health-care system," said Grams.

Grams quoted Dayton's DFL primary opponents, Mike Ciresi and Jerry Janezich, who said Dayton's plan would bankrupt small employers. Independence Party candidate James Gibson, a software developer, says Dayton's plan is the equivalent of saying all Americans should make another $3 an hour - a noble goal but one that could lead to higher unemployment.

Both Gibson and Grams talked about medical savings accounts to allow more Americans to buy health coverage. Dayton called that the "magic wand solution," and the former state auditor disputed Grams' charge that his plan is a government takeover of the nation's health care system.

It's either going to be left untouched, as you both recommend, or we're going address it, as I propose," said Dayton. "Not through national health insurance, and senator, you should know better than to try to portray it. I want to expand the way the 82 percent of working Americans get their health insurance, which is in the workplace, employer and employee. I want the government, yes, to be as a mandate, the last resort. But I'm for some resort rather than no resort, which leaves increasing number of Americans without any coverage, which all the rest of us pay for indirectly."

Dayton also found himself the odd-man-out on the issue of the estate tax, which Grams voted to repeal, calling it one of the most unfair, immoral taxes. Gibson says it crosses the line between taxation and confiscation. Dayton, heir to the department store fortune, says the estate tax only affects the wealthiest two-percent of Americans.

"I don't see why, given the revenue needs of this country and the need for greater tax equity, that that money should be shielded, and I don't see why there's a public interest in protecting ne'er do well rich kids - like myself - from getting a windfall beyond what is already provided under the tax laws," Dayton said.

Grams, who has begun making an issue of Dayton's wealth, says the estate tax isn't a big deal to millionaires like Dayton, but it hurts the owners of small businesses and farms.

I'd like to know how much Mark Dayton is spending this year to protect his wealth. He can do it, through buying insurance, having very sharp legal minds and accountants to protect as much of his wealth as he can. If you're a small business or a small farmer, can you afford a $15,000-a-year policy to protect your wealth that you want to pass on to your kids? No, you can't," Grams said.

Dayton says he would support exclusions for small businesses and farms. The three differed on what to do with the projected budget surplus. Dayton wants to spend two-thirds to pay down the national debt, 21 percent for tax cuts, and the remaining 12-percent on health care and education. Grams wants to use the surplus for debt reduction and tax cuts, while Gibson wants to use the entire surplus to pay down the debt. Gibson has said debt reduction is the issue that prompted him to run for the Senate, and he challenged Grams for not wanting to dedicate the entire surplus to the national debt.

"I really have to take exception with the way you characterize the surplus," Gibson told Grams. "You call it an overcharge. We had, back in 1980, about $1 trillion of national debt; we now have almost $6 trillion. Do you call the deficits that we've run up 'undercharges' during this period of time? If we use the surplus to repay the national debt, doesn't that mean we're just simply compensating for what we've already done in the past? Aren't we simply taking care of our past irresponsibility?"

"I agree with you, and Alan Greenspan does too,"Grams responded. "But Alan Greenspan doesn't say to put it all against the debt, he said that's the best way, but he said we also need tax relief in order to spur the economy and keep it growing. So we need a balance there. And I agree that these overcharges, and we should pay the debt because we should not pass on our debt to our children."

"I was watching C-SPAN the time you questioned Alan Greenspan about what to do with the surplus," said Gibson. "And what he said was: the best thing we can do with the surplus is to use it to repay the national debt."

Gibson and Grams agree on privatizing Social Security. Both support allowing workers to invest a portion of Social Security taxes. Dayton opposes privatization, and his latest television ad calls Grams' plan to let workers invest up to 10 percent of their incomes in private retirement accounts a "risky scheme".
Mark Dayton spent much of the debate defending his plan for employer-mandated health insurance benefits.
(MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)

After the debate, Grams defended the cost of his plan.

"My plan is about $13 trillion over 50 years," Grams said. "But doing nothing is $21.6 trillion, according to the Social Security administration trustees. So doing nothing is the biggest risk for not only this generation, but for your children, my children and our grandchildren."

Dayton charged Grams with scaring seniors by distorting the Social Security system's stability.

"Senator Grams called it a Ponzi scheme, he said that it was nearly bankrupt, he said the Social Security trustees have said the system will soon crumble, All of which is ridiculously untrue, and he's the one who has been fictionalizing the situation in a way to try to defend taking 80 percent of the Social Security funds out of the system, which is the one extreme proposal would cause the Social Security system to crumble," said Dayton.

Dayton says Social Security should be the subject of the next Senate debate. He invited Grams and Gibson to debate him at least once in each of the state's eight Congressional districts in the month before the November election. Gibson immediately accepted the invitation, while Grams has yet to respond.

Audience members said the debate provided few surprises, with Grams and Dayton staking out predictably divergent positions. One Chamber member said Gibson needs a little more seasoning, but several were impressed with his first debate appearance.

Nate Garvis, vice president of government affairs for Target Corporation, says it was his first exposure to Gibson.

"I found him to be very articulate. And I hope he adds a lot of spark to this campaign season. Quite frankly, I thought Rod Grams and Mark Dayton delivered pretty much what I had expected," said Garvis.

He and several other audience members say they're still undecided about the Senate race, despite the fact that the U.S. Chamber has endorsed Grams. Some say they're still waiting to hear the candidates' views on global competitiveness and other economic issues, and more about Social Security, before making up their minds.