Rangers lose House fight to keep economic development money
ST. PAUL -- Iron Range lawmakers waged an emotional fight, but failed to prevent the Minnesota House from taking $60 million out of an economic development fund for their area.
The House approved a bill 70-60 Tuesday funding various job-related programs while reducing spending $27 million to help balance the state budget.
Rangers lit up the House chamber with an emotional hour-and-a-half debate about the proposal taking nearly half of the Douglas Johnson economic development fund. Republicans who control the House took the money to help balance the state budget.
"I would not steal your property taxes like you are stealing ours," Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said. "I would not steal your children's future like you are stealing ours."
The debate was spurred by Rukavina's amendment to take money out of cities represented by Republicans. After lengthy debate, he withdrew the amendment, saying he was just trying to make a point.
"This is a targeting of people because of who they are, how they vote, where they live," Rukavina said about the Republican-written bill.
The Iron Range is dominated by Democrats.
The only Republican Iron Range lawmaker bolted from her party to ask lawmakers to protect the Johnson fund.
"They must prepare now by sheltering the money from the mines to prepare for tomorrow," Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick, R-Deep River, said. "This is important for our today, but it also is important for our tomorrow."
Democratic-Farmer-Laborite Iron Range lawmakers took to the microphone during almost all of the Johnson debate, with Republicans generally keeping quiet.
However, Rep. Kurt Bills, R-Rosemount, said that taking the money "twists me up."
"I don't like how this is done," Bills said. "It seems like a near-term fix."
Money for the Johnson fund comes from taxes on taconite production, instead of charging mines property taxes. It is used to fund economic development in seven northeast Minnesota counties through the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.
Since 2002, the fund has helped create 4,588 jobs, Rep. Dave Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, said. It is the state's best example of how to expand business, he added
"When you want to know about economic development, come talk to us," Dill said.
Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, delivered an impassioned plea to keep money in the fund, saying it can help young people remain on the Range.
"The attack on the people of the iron range has to stop," Anzelc said. "They deserve better."
Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, who was not born when the economic development fund was formed in the 1970s, said it is important to have a fund like that because taconite will not always be available.
"When there is a ton of taconite mined, it is gone forever," she said.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton's administration expressed concerns about many issues in the jobs bill, giving it a doubtful future. He has said he opposes taking money out of the Johnson fund.
Overall, the bill would spend $233 million in the next two years, a $27 million cut from what had been expected to be spent.
It would reduce business and community development programs 34 percent, cut state funds to the Labor and Industry Department 23 percent and chop the Housing Finance Department 11 percent.
The bill does not cut programs that provide housing for the mentally ill and homeless. It increases funding for the blind.
"We prioritize our spending to focus on workforce development programs," said Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, chairman of the committee that produced the jobs bill.
Gunther said his bill might not be the one others want, and "I evidently failed a lot of people."
"I was dealt a rotten hand this time and I didn't like it," Gunther said about the low spending level given him.
Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.