By Don Davis
The most-discussed greater Minnesota issue in the race between U.S. Sen. Al Franken and Mike McFadden, by far, is whether to allow a nickel-copper mine to open in northeastern Minnesota.
Democrat Franken and Republican McFadden break along predictable party philosophies on that issue as their Senate race heads toward the Nov. 4 election. Their stances on mining pretty much explain their thoughts on many other issues.
McFadden and other Republicans have tried to make PolyMet Mining’s eight-year-long environmental review process an issue in this election. While Republicans say permits that generally come only after environmental impacts are reviewed should be issued immediately, Franken agrees with other Democrats that the reviews need to wrap up before the controversial mine should open.
“It is the federal government’s role to regulate, but we just are not real good at it,” McFadden said, delivering as proof PolyMet’s time under the government microscope.
“What I would do immediately upon election would send letters to the (Environmental Protection Agency and other federal departments) and tell them to stand down and let Minnesota take the lead on this,” he added.
Franken, on the other hand, calls for what he calls “balance.”
The incumbent said that reviews need to follow state and federal laws with an eye toward protecting the environment.
Copper-nickel mining could be an economic boon, Franken has said, but similar mines elsewhere have caused considerable environmental damage. He said that PolyMet officials are satisfied with following the process and are not asking for permits before environmental studies are done.
Franken is seeking his second six-year term in the Senate. He beat then-Sen. Norm Coleman by 312 votes in an election decided after eight months of recount and court actions.
McFadden took a leave from his business to launch his first public campaign for the office that pays $174,000 annually.
Both are Twin Cities suburban residents who have spent time learning greater Minnesota issues.
Forum News Service interviewed both about greater Minnesota subjects, including the much-discussed need to improve high-speed Internet, also known as broadband, in rural Minnesota. Broadband advocates say rural Minnesotans and businesses are at a disadvantage to their big-city cousins because so much depends on connectivity today.
McFadden initially had little to say about broadband, but when the interview continued three days later he said that “broadband is critical infrastructure” and Washington needs to play a role in serving rural residents.
He said he did not like the government providing Internet service, citing a Lake County effort that he said competed with local companies. Instead, he said, the government should provide private companies incentives such as tax breaks or subsidies to allow better Internet service.
Franken, meanwhile, said that more federal broadband money is needed so local governments may establish improved service. He said the added money can be found without raising taxes, suggesting that Washington could end tax breaks given to oil and gas companies to help fund Internet needs.
The senator complained that some local Internet providers want to stop government involvement, which he compared to major cable television and Internet providers such as Comcast growing and reducing competition.
Both candidates brought up railroad congestion as a significant issue.
Farmers and agri-businesses frequently complain that North Dakota oil is tying up the rails so much that they cannot deliver items such as fertilizer to farmers and cannot deliver crops to markets.
“I have been all over the Surface Transportation Board, making sure they got out to Minnesota number of times,” Franken said.
Rail backlogs have cost farmers at least $100 million, the senator said, but new rules could help reduce the backlog.
McFadden ties railroads to one of his favorite subjects on the campaign trail: pipelines.
“We have got to get pipelines passed,” he said about how railroads would be freed up for other uses. “That is the root cause.”
In the short term, McFadden said he wants federal regulators to better enforce current laws and to make sure federal and state officials are working together. But the only long-term solution, he said, is to build pipelines.
On other issues:
— Franken said the estate tax, which many farmers and small business owners don’t like, “is at about the right level now.” McFadden said that the entire tax system needs to be overhauled and would not talk about individual taxes like that placed on estates.
— McFadden agreed with Franken’s work to help get Minnesotans trained to take jobs that manufacturers find hard to fill.
— They agreed that the Environmental Protection Agency has gone too far in putting most bodies of water under federal regulations, which limits what farmers and others can do. Franken said he is working to ease the rule while McFadden said the incumbent already has voted against a bill banning the new EPA plan.
— McFadden said renewable fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel are mature industries and the federal government needs to do little more for them other than the Environmental Protection Agency should set rules and stick to them. Franken agreed that the EPA is a problem, but said he also is working to increase the use of ethanol.
— Franken said that the federal government puts “Draconian” financial mandates on the post office, which threatens Saturday mail delivery and could lead to closures of some facilities. “Saturday deliveries are important,” he said about rural Minnesota. “They get chickens. They get direct medicine. They get their newspapers.”
— McFadden’s post office fix is to make its operations more transparent to the public. “It is important that we retain that service while at the same time looking at making the post office more cost effective.”