Rangers fight to keep economic development funding

Melin, Dill

Minnesota’s Iron Range lawmakers are fuming, claiming Republicans are stealing money from their Democratic-Farmer-Labor area to balance the state budget.

“These proposals would take what amounts to our property taxes,” Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, said Thursday.

Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, added that legislative Republicans do not suggest taking the $10 million Mayo Clinic in Rochester pays in property taxes, but have no problem taking money from an economic development fund and other funds that help the northeast.

The Rangers say a House GOP plan to take $60 million from the $122 million Douglas J. Johnson Fund, established in 1978 to provide jobs in northeastern Minnesota, amount to thievery. Senate Republicans want to take $45 million from the fund.

“It is going to kill jobs for generations to come,” Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, said.

Money from the Johnson fund is supposed to be used to diversity jobs on the Range, where most work is related to mining.

The money is paid to the fund in lieu of property taxes, so the Range lawmakers equated the proposal to taking other areas’ property taxes paid to local governments and using them for state programs.

“Republicans are taking $60 million from one region of the state,” Melin said.

Range lawmakers said the Johnson fund has created thousands of jobs in their areas.

Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, rattled off a list of businesses that started with money from the fund. He said each paved road in northeast Minnesota’s seven-country Iron Range area has a business helped by the Johnson fund.

The Range is a DFL stronghold, with last year’s election producing the first area Republican legislator for a long time. Bakk said the GOP also is targeting Duluth, Minneapolis and St. Paul — other Democratic areas.

House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, said that it is time to discuss how all funds are spent.

Legislative leaders are pumping out budget bills that spend about $34 billion in the next two years, while plugging a $5 billion deficit. Republicans in charge of the House and Senate are looking mostly at making cuts, although they also propose raising some fees.

Dean said money from the fund, paid by taconite mines, is state revenue and lawmakers must look at how all state revenue is used.

However, upon a reporter’s questions, he refused to say that his party would demand removing the Johnson funds as budget negotiation begin later this legislative session.

Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, said it is not just the Johnson fund that is in danger.

“They are raiding every possible fund,” he said, decrying what he said were GOP attacks on Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth in several bills.

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, emphasized during a news conference that Range funds provide millions of dollars every year to schools and people in his area are not getting rich on state money.

“We we look like thieves?” Rukavina asked. “I think we are saints. … We don’t deserve to be treated like this.”

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