A legislative audit critical of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board could be a turning point for the state agency if lawmakers use the report to address the agency’s shortcomings.
Although some may focus on the agency’s failure to properly vet and monitor the grants and loans it provided business ventures within the Taconite Tax Relief Area, the larger issue is the board’s makeup and whether it violates the state constitution.
It’s an issue we’ve raised before, as recently as last year. The principle of the separation of powers that guides our government at both the state and federal levels, would appear to prohibit the structure now in place at the IRRRB, where a board comprised primarily of sitting legislators has authority over an executive branch agency. The legislative auditor, in his report this past week, agreed that the current makeup of the board leaves the agency vulnerable to a court challenge on constitutional grounds.
But the makeup of the current board raises other concerns beyond a simple legal dispute. By giving local legislators control of the purse strings for millions of dollars in funding for community and economic development projects within the Taconite Relief Area, the IRRRB helps to cement the status quo rather than encourage new ideas and leadership at a time when alternative visions are definitely needed. As we’ve noted before, giving Iron Range legislators outsized political clout tends to stifle dissenting voices from other elected officials in our region for fear that projects in their communities will be denied funds. There are reasons why the political class on the Iron Range marches in virtual lockstep to the agenda of the region’s legislators, and their control over IRRRB funds is certainly one of the most powerful.
Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles offered four alternatives to the current board structure, ranging from eliminating the board and handing power back to the state agency under the governor’s purview to converting the board of legislators to a strictly advisory board.
Just about any option would be an improvement over the status quo and its questionable constitutionality. We’d like to see the agency, with input from legislators, establish a set of criteria for board membership and solicit applications from qualified individuals. A healthy cross-section of regional stakeholders— from business, to labor, to the non-profit sector— should all be represented. Let a governor, with consent of the Legislature, select the most qualified from a pool of applicants.
At the very least, it would involve more Iron Range residents from different walks of life who could bring fresh perspectives to the board. Engaging new people in the process would also provide an excellent opportunity to build knowledge and political skills for a new generation of potential leaders for our region.
A new leadership model for the agency would, hopefully, prompt other changes recommended by the legislative auditor, including more accountability for those receiving IRRRB funds. The auditor noted that the agency has, for too long, failed to follow up to see whether businesses or other entities receiving funding, were living up to their job promises or stated missions.
We saw this, again, just recently when the IRRRB approved funds for the Mt. Iron-Buhl School District from an account designated for districts that combine or consolidate functions with neighboring districts. MI-B officials said they planned to pursue a cooperation agreement with the St. Louis County School District, but it’s yet to move beyond the talking stage. But when Rep. Carly Melin asked that the funding be contingent on MI-B actually following through on its promises, her fellow legislators rejected her motion and the district got the funds without any strings attached.
Melin’s proposal was seeking the very accountability that the legislative auditor says is lacking in too many of the deals made by the IRRRB. If the current board is unwilling or unable to demand results in exchange for the tax dollars they dole out, that’s another compelling reason for change at the IRRRB.