Jeff Johnson is bringing a heavy dose of populism to the Republican primary for Minnesota governor.
The now-51-year-old Hennepin County Commissioner captured the Republican primary win last time, in 2014, but failed to beat incumbent DFL Gov. Mark Dayton in the general election.
Like last time, Johnson is focusing his 2018 campaign messaging on curbing what he believes is government overreach.
"The big overriding issue, for me, is to take power from government and give it back to people," he said in an interview Monday. "It's giving people control over their own money, their own property and their own business."
State government agencies such as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Pollution Control Agency and the Department of Commerce have become arrogant, Johnson said. Harsh regulations and taxes lead to a slower growth in Minnesotan middle-class jobs relative to other states, Johnson said.
Tier 1 imports
Johnson said he had not released a plan for tax reform yet, but generally speaking, changes to the state income tax would be a priority.
The top tier of the income tax-for the most wealthy people-was too high at 9.85 percent of income, he said. Since income tax is used as a pass-through for small business owners, the top tier drives out businesspeople, he said.
But more concerning was the bottom tier for the lowest-income people, Johnson said. The rate, 5.35 percent, was a burden on those with the least ability to pay taxes in the first places, he said. Minnesota's low tier was a higher tax amount than the highest tier in 22 other states, he said.
"I would start with that bottom tax and work my way up," Johnson said.
But tax cuts must be accompanied by a cut in state spending in order to pay for them, Johnson said. Asked which areas of state government he wanted to cut, Johnson said there was room to cut everywhere. If elected governor, he would ask the heads of all state agencies to review which parts of their department could be cut, he said.
However, the Minnesota Department of Human Services was especially in need of budget trimming, Johnson said.
"I think that Minnesotans, in general, are very comfortable paying taxes to help people who truly can't help themselves," he said. "I wouldn't want to stray from that at all as a state. But I think we also have to be smart about it, and I think we have to make sure that we are basing programs for those who can help themselves on finding work, as opposed to something that maybe doesn't lead to that eventually."
Johnson contrasted that segment of the population with those he felt could not help themselves, such as seniors in nursing homes, children's programs and the disabled.
"Our focus should be first and foremost those people who are most vulnerable in our society ... we should make sure we are funding that at the absolute top," he said.
To help tamp down welfare costs in other areas, Johnson suggested a work requirement for all able-bodied people who seek welfare benefits.
"The point of that is, once they are able to work, hopefully they will be off welfare," he said.
Health care reform hotseat
On health care, Johnson said MNsure was a "disaster" but merely a symptom of the larger issue that lies in government's belief it should restrict health care plans.
"I think we should be moving into a system where there are fewer mandates, where if an individual wants to have an option (of) more catastrophic coverage, that they have the actual right to do that with their own money," he said. "I think that we should be giving more of those options to people on public subsidies as well-if they want to stay in the government program, they can, but allow them to have a voucher to spend that money on the private market if they think there's something better for them there."
Asked whether he would be willing to allow Minnesota to go on the federal health exchange if MNsure was repealed, Johnson said he would.
He was also in favor of returning to the system of high-risk insurance pools that existed in Minnesota before passage of the federal Affordable Care Act. The pools are a government-subsidized program specifically geared for those who have a high probability of making a health insurance claim (and are thus a higher risk for private insurance companies to cover). Typically, a person in the high risk pools would have a premium up to twice that of a healthy person, according to HealthCare.gov. Johnson acknowledged that Minnesota's high risk pool was about 25 percent more expensive than a typical healthy person's plan.
National Public Radio highlighted Minnesota's old pool, the Minnesota Comprehensive Health Association, earlier this year as an example of the exorbitant cost of high-risk pools.
"And for the MCHA, even the higher premiums fell far short of covering the full cost of care for the roughly 25,000 people who were insured by the program," NPR's report said."It needed more than $173 million in subsidies in its final year of normal operation."
Still, the pools at least provided an option back in the days where insurance companies could legally refuse to cover people with preexisting conditions at all.
NPR's story, originally posted from Minnesota Public Radio, went on to cite University of Minnesota health expert Lynn Blewett, who said a better idea than high risk pools was the concept of reinsurance. The Minnesota Legislature instituted a reinsurance program this past spring, which essentially uses government funds to subsidize insurance for insurers against the risk of paying claims for high-risk policyholders.
Johnson, however, opposed the idea of continuing Minnesota's reinsurance program.
"I think the whole point of that was ... it would be a one-time stabilization, but it is clearly not a long-term solution to the problem," he said. "We cannot afford to be doing that year after year after year."
Johnson said he would focus more on fiscal issues such as private sector job creation and health care insurance as opposed to social issues such as abortion, but he is anti-abortion.
Asked how he planned to change his campaign strategy from his unsuccessful 2014 bid, Johnson said his core message would not change.
"Honestly, the biggest difference is going to be that I'm not running against a very popular incumbent with a huge outside money advantage," he said, referring to Dayton.