Last month in this space, we argued that area legislators should not be allowed to serve on the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. While the strictly legal concerns focused on the constitutionality of the arrangement, our broader political concern was focused on the consolidation of too much power within the hands of the Iron Range delegation. As we noted “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.”
The ink on our editorial was barely dry before just such an example hit the papers. Last week, the Cook County Board took the advice of local business leaders and opted against action on a resolution that would have put the county on record as opposed to sulfide mining. As has been widely reported, one of those business leaders, Dennis Rysdahl, a co-owner of Bluefin Bay resort in Tofte, told county commissioners of an email he received from Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, which suggested that Cook County could face the loss of taconite funding through the IRRRB if it moved ahead with such a resolution.
The incident struck Republicans as a political opening, and they accused Bakk of abusing the power of his office to stamp out dissent. While Bakk denied making such a threat, he has declined calls by GOP legislators to release his email to Rysdahl.
Without access to the email, it’s difficult to know the exact context of Bakk’s remarks, but there is no question how his words were perceived. And Rysdahl wasn’t the only one to warn Cook County commissioners last week that IRRRB funds could be used to punish the county for expressing a different view on sulfide mining.
The historical irony couldn’t be richer. When Gov. Harold Stassen created the state agency in 1941, it was in hopes of building a diversified economic base less dependent on mining. Cook County, whose ties to mining have always been somewhat limited, has done better than most parts of the region in building a stable, quality of life economy based on tourism, outdoor recreation, the arts, and entrepreneurship. In other words, by the original mission of the IRRRB, Cook County—which enjoys the Arrowhead’s highest median household income— is a success story.
Just don’t tell that to the Iron Range delegation. There’s long been a sense that the region must remain united on the delegation’s agenda, even if that unity is enforced with heavy-handed means, such as the blunt club of IRRRB funding. And these days, the delegation is focused on the promotion of sulfide mining. Threatening to deny IRRRB and production tax funds to Cook County in response to an anti-sulfide mining resolution would hardly be shocking under the circumstances, given the way politics works in our region.
It is disappointing, however, to see an agency that was supposed to foster economic independence from mining being used as an enforcer for a political culture that is every bit as dependent on mining today as it was in 1941.
Rather than punishing success, the IRRRB should be a means of encouraging economic diversity— and the political independence that comes with it. As long as Iron Range legislators can manipulate the agency’s mission to serve their political objectives, the agency can never be anything but a force for a lackluster status quo, not the engine of economic hope that state officials originally envisioned.