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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press, Published September 05 2012

Candidates for 3 North Dakota offices clash on taxes, oil

BISMARCK — North Dakota's candidates for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House and governor argued about Social Security, taxes and the management of the state's oil boom Wednesday as they met in their first series of debates.

Democratic Senate Candidate Heidi Heitkamp upbraided her Republican opponent, incumbent U.S. Rep. Rick Berg, for what she said was Berg's support for cutting taxes for wealthy people and turning Social Security into a private pension system.

Berg said the Democratic-controlled Senate has been an obstacle to getting the nation's runaway spending under control and helping to revive the nation's moribund economy.

Berg said several options should be discussed to ensure Social Security's long-term solvency, and a key element of bolstering the program is to spur economic growth, Berg said.

“The fact of the matter is, (Social Security) is going to be bankrupt,” Berg said. “How do we fix it? We fix it by growing our economy.”

The three separate debates were held within a six-hour window at a Bismarck hotel on Wednesday. They were sponsored by the North Dakota Broadcasters Association.

In the U.S. House debate, Republican Kevin Cramer and Democrat Pam Gulleson offered different suggestions for improving Social Security's financial health.

Cramer said he would support increasing Social Security's retirement age for younger taxpayers, saying the increase perhaps should apply to people in their 40s or younger. At present, people born in 1960 or later may retire with full benefits at age 67.

Social Security benefits also should be “means-tested,” Cramer said, which could reduce payments for better-off retirees.

Gulleson suggested raising the income cap on which Social Security taxes are levied or removing it completely “so people are contributing longer.” It is now set at $110,100. Social Security tax is not applied to income above that amount.

Gulleson and Cramer disagreed on whether the federal government should extend a tax credit for wind power that is set to expire at year's end.

The credit provides a subsidy of 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour of wind-produced electricity for the first 10 years of a wind energy project. If it is extended one year, budget analysts estimate the federal government would forgo more than $4 billion in tax revenue over 10 years.

Gulleson said she supported extending the tax credit, calling wind power an important part of the nation's energy portfolio. North Dakota is also a major wind-energy producer, with projects capable of generating close to 1,500 megawatts of power.

Cramer, whose job as a North Dakota public service commissioner includes regulating the location of wind projects, said he believed the subsidy should end.

“I know there are a lot of North Dakotans who disagree with me, but we have a $16 trillion debt that we have to get a handle on, and we have to do our part too,” Cramer said. “We'll see if the market supports this wind energy.”

Ryan Taylor, the Democratic candidate for governor, needled the Republican incumbent, Jack Dalrymple, for what he said was Dalrymple's plodding response to managing the problems caused by western North Dakota's explosive increase in oil production. The state's output has increased fivefold in the last five years, vaulting North Dakota to the No. 2 spot among the nation's oil producers.

Dalrymple has not pushed enough to help schools and local governments handle the difficulties caused by an influx of oil workers and truck traffic, Taylor said.

“It takes effort. It takes leadership. It does take resources,” Taylor said about dealing with oil-related problems. “I think we have to do more than brag about the (budget) surplus that sits here in Bismarck when there's still needs to be met.”

Dalrymple said the state has made a “dramatic” commitment to increase spending on public works, housing and schools in western North Dakota, including help in buying portable classrooms and construction of a temporary bypass in Williston that has diverted thousands of trucks outside the city's streets.

“It's true that we are in a catch-up mode, but we're doing extremely well,” Dalrymple said. “We can meet these challenges. We have the resources to do it. We know what we need to do.”

At some points during the debates, candidate statements were at odds with notables from their respective parties.

Heitkamp said she supports all forms of energy development, saying President Barack Obama's administration has “walked away from coal and been hostile to oil.” The Democratic Senate candidate said she agreed with a pro-energy slogan, “Drill, baby, drill,” advanced by Republican Sarah Palin, a former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate in 2008.

During the House debate, the Republican Cramer called the slogan “a good catch phrase, but it's a little extreme.”

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