REGIONAL— As the 2021 special legislative session wrapped up this past week, it was clear that area lawmakers saw plenty to like in the final bills that emerged. “I have a favorite day of …
REGIONAL— As the 2021 special legislative session wrapped up this past week, it was clear that area lawmakers saw plenty to like in the final bills that emerged.
“I have a favorite day of the session,” said Sen. Tom Bakk, I-Cook, “the day after we finished when I drive home, because I rarely turn on my radio. “I just spend that time thinking about things. I was thinking about everything that happened during the session, and I actually pulled over and sent (Sen. David) Tomassoni a text and said ‘David, I’m thinking about all of the stuff we got done and I can’t even believe it.’”
Perhaps at the top of the list for both was achieving tax relief for recipients of federal Paycheck Protection Program business loans and additional unemployment insurance benefits.
“That was my bill,” Bakk said. “Those two things together were almost $700 million, and it was a little bit of a struggle to get done because it was pretty expensive. But it was going to be taxed, so that was a big deal.”
Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, agreed. “Our businesses went through such a such a jolt this past 15 months,” Ecklund said. “They didn’t need to worry about paying taxes on something that the federal government wasn’t going to tax.”
Both Bakk and Ecklund were enthusiastic about bringing a new $440 million oriented strand board production facility to Cohasset. Set to be built by North Carolina-based Huber Engineered Woods, the plant is expected to bring more than 150 jobs to the region. The company secured financial commitments from the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation and the Department of Employment and Economic Development, and the deal was sealed when a Bakk-authored bill was folded into the omnibus tax bill to provide up to $3 million annually in production incentives to Huber for the first ten years of operation.
“The forest products industry has been in a tough situation the past few years,” Ecklund said. “I think this is going to be a definite plus for the logging industry. They will have a new customer and it will keep our suppliers in business.”
Bakk’s bill included a clause requiring Huber to buy 80 percent of its raw timber materials from Minnesota suppliers to qualify for the production incentives, which presents a bit of a challenge, he said.
“We’re going to have to figure out how can find some loggers,” Bakk said. “There’s not enough people left on the logging side of things to service that plan. We got two years for construction, so there’s time to do that.”
Huber is expected to break ground for the project next spring.
An additional boon for current loggers was the inclusion of a relief package for loggers who bought state timber permits expecting to sell their timber to the Verso plant in Duluth, which closed down last summer. Permits for tracts that are unharvested are eligible for full refunds of the required 15-percent down payment and partial repayments for tracts where some cutting has already been done.
Securing $70 million for the state’s Border-to-Border high-speed broadband initiative was also near the top of their lists of accomplishments.
“I’ve been the chief author of the broadband legislation for the last four years, and that’s a huge win for the state of Minnesota,” Ecklund said. “You compile that with all of the federal money that will be coming in and we might finally get to the point where we can say Minnesota is true border-to-border broadband, but right now 257,000 households are unserved.”
“That’s the biggest (allocation) we’ve ever made, $35 million a year,” Bakk said.
A little closer to home, Bakk mentioned several items that will benefit outdoor recreational opportunities in the North Country.
“We got funds for Crane Lake for the Voyageurs National Park Visitor Center. There’s no visitor center there, and you wouldn’t even think it’s a gateway to the park,” Bakk said. “I think it’s about $6 million we got for that.”
The Voyageur Country and Prospector ATV clubs also received funding of about $1 million each for trail development in the region.
Ecklund noted that he also pushed for inclusion of $250,000 to plan for a statewide ATV trail system plan similar to one that exists for snowmobiles.
Bakk also talked about a move to include property owned by the Dayton family on west end of Lake Vermilion and make it part of Vermilion State Park. The property, which Bakk said has been long promised by the Dayton family to be deeded to the state, is worth approximately $2 million. Through negotiations with St. Louis County, Bakk obtained an agreement to commit one-third of the payment in lieu of taxes for the property, about $10,000 annually, to the Lake Vermilion Fire Brigade, which is based in an unorganized township.
Ecklund also mentioned a bill he and Bakk worked on together that secured $1.6 million for the Entrepreneur Fund. That money will, in turn, help to leverage between $10 and $15 million in federal funding by helping small business secure loans, he said.