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Senate candidates disagree over economy
The four major party candidates for U.S. Senate were back on the debate stage Monday. DFL Sen. Paul Wellstone, Republican Norm Coleman, Independence Party candidate Jim Moore and Ray Tricomo from the Green Party talked about business and economic issues at a forum in St. Cloud, which was sponsored by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

Outside the renovated Paramount Theater in downtown St. Cloud, small groups of Wellstone and Coleman supporters waved campaign signs, yelling out to anyone willing to listen.

Inside, a full house of about 700 people, most of them Chamber of Commerce members, watched, listened and cheered on the Senate candidates in a race that's taken on the feel of an epic battle.

The first question the candidates faced was what they would do to help small business with the cost of providing health care.

DFLer Paul Wellstone called for allowing small businesses to join large insurance pools of government workers.

"I think the most important thing we can do which is a bill I have with Jim Jeffords, who is now an Independent, is to allow small business to become part of a larger purchasing pool. States can do that," Wellstone said. "If states want to, we could have small business into the federal employees benefits plan which means they would get benefits, the same benefits as members of Congress have with the same reasonable costs."

The Independence Party's Jim Moore called for the establishment of personal medical accounts, in which workers would set aside money for day-to-day health care expenses. Moore's plan would include more traditional insurance for catastrophic coverage.

Republican Norm Coleman said government needs to work with businesses to develop a plan, and that he would favor some type of universal coverage. Coleman spent most of his time on the question criticizing Wellstone.

"You've got to figure out a way to get it done. Paul's been there for twelve years and for twelve years what have we done with prescription drug costs?," Coleman said. "What have done to deal with this issue of health care for small business? It hasn't gotten done and the reality is even if you allow businesses the opportunity to consolidate, with all the mandates you have, health care is still not going to be affordable."

Ray Tricomo from the Green Party called for a single-payer health system. He also literally reached out to his more well-known opponents, all but forcing them to agree, two weeks before the election, to stop attacking each other.

"I should like to have us join hands and pledge here and now that no more personal attacks will be heard in this campaign in the next two weeks," Tricomo said.

Moore, Wellstone and Coleman agreed, and for a moment the four candidates held hands -- before turning to another issue -- what the federal government should do to help states like Minnesota pay for transportation improvements.

Tricomo talked about ending what he calls the nation's addiction to fossil fuels. He said the federal government should cap road building, and focus instead on environmentally-friendly mass transportation.

Moore called for spending on locks and dams, on roads, on mass transit, and on emerging technologies like hydrogen-powered cars.

Coleman talked about public-private partnerships. He criticized Wellstone for not joining other senators in calling for lock and dam improvements. Coleman also said Wellstone has failed to bring back to Minnesota as much federal money as the state should be getting.

"I believe we rank either 45th or 47th in terms of money going to Washington and coming back. We can do much better by having a senator who know how to work in a bipartisan way," said Coleman. "I was a Republican mayor in a Democratic city so and I understand how to do this."

"Hey Ray, it sounds like your pledge isn't going to work today," Wellstone responded.

Wellstone defended his record, holding up a plaque, adorned with a large steering wheel, which was awarded to him for bringing federal transportation dollars to St. Cloud.

"This is the 'Steering Us in the Right Direction' award from the St. Cloud Metro Transit, for all of the appropriations and momentum I have been able to deliver for St. Cloud and central Minnesota," Wellstone said.

Wellstone listed millions of dollars for local transit projects he has helped secure. He then linked the transportation dilemma to broader economic concerns.

Wellstone told the audience he's proud he voted in favor of an economic stimulus package some 10 years ago that raised taxes and, according to Wellstone, set the stage for massive economic growth in the second half of the 1990s.

The conversation then shifted to the issue of taxes. A member of the audience asked this question of Coleman.

"Do you favor extending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, or investing more money into our struggling school systems?"

"The rhetoric raised by that question ... somehow it's tax breaks for the rich or education. No," Coleman answered. "No. First we need to fully fund special education -- no question about that. As an urban mayor I understood what unfunded mandates did to a community. In the end you have to figure out a way to work together to build coalition.

"Secondly, I have to respond to Senator Wellstone's comments," Coleman said. "The economic plan he's talking about was the Clinton tax increase in 1993. And I think it's absolutely outrageous to somehow lay claim that 18,000 jobs were grown in St. Paul because Bill Clinton raised taxes."

Wellstone said he's proud to have the support of teachers' unions. He said had it not been for the Bush administration and Republicans in the House, the federal government would be paying a lot more of the cost of providing special education.

Tricomo labeled himself a redistributionist, and called for a complete revival of the nation's public schools to be paid for by the wealthy. Moore talked about the importance of the federal government paying for more of the cost of special education.

And on another tax question, Moore said he'd reverse tax cuts the Bush administration steered through Congress.

"I would focus again on reducing the debt," Moore said. "I would rescind the tax cut Bush has scheduled going through from 2005 to 2013 and I would apply that to the deficit, not to a great deal of additional spending. But I think we're at a real risk in this economy for deflation like we're seeing in Japan and Germany and we need to have some sort of fiscal stimulus to get us up and going."

The candidates also talked about tort reform. Tricomo said he would support some changes to eliminate frivolous lawsuits. Moore and Coleman said they supported what they called a common sense approach.

Coleman made the point that unnecessary lawsuits are a major expense for business.

"The cost of litigation I think doubles the price of a football helmets, it adds about $500 to the price of a car and about $3,000 for a pacemaker, " said Coleman.

Wellstone asked rhetorically who would be for frivolous lawsuits, and then defended consumer rights.

"By golly when a family losses a loved one they have a right to take that company to court and demand redress for grievance, no question about it," said Wellstone.

The Senate candidates meet again on Friday evening for a League of Women Voters debate in Duluth.

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