Replacing the Iron Range’s long time economic development board with a panel wielding less power on Thursday passed its first Minnesota House test.
But opposition arose on issues including whether information the new board creates would be public and if there really is a need for change.
The measure passed on a split voice vote, and has other committee stops before it can be taken up by the full House.
Legislation by Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, would eliminate the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, comprised of northeastern Minnesota legislators. Instead, a new commission would be comprised of six legislators from anywhere in the state and three private citizens.
The commission would make recommendations to a commissioner, who would report to the governor. The commission would not have the final say on spending issues.
The issue arose earlier this year when the Office of the Legislative Auditor warned that the current all-legislator board could make the IRRRB vulnerable to a constitutional challenge. Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles and his staff said the state Constitution forbids legislators from holding two public offices.
Nobles also said board members make decisions, especially on spending, that should be reserved for the executive branch.
Elizabeth Stawicki of Nobles’ office said that at times legislators sitting on the board “are making executive branch decisions.” She said the board was advisory before taking on more authority in 1995.
“The board has approval power over what the commissioner decides,” she said.
Hackbarth went beyond Stawicki, saying “this is the only state agency with no oversight, absolutely none.”
The Hackbarth bill contrasts with one likely to pass the Senate that keeps the IRRRB mostly as it is other than making the board strictly advisory.
Lobbyist Rich Neumeister, a private citizen who long has argued for public access to meetings and documents, told the House Civil Law and Data Practices Committee that he thinks the Hackbarth bill would result in most documents held by the new commission being kept from the public because it would fall under legislative rules. The Legislature does not provide the same level of public access to its documents as other governmental bodies are legally required to do.
While the commission would be connected to the Legislature, the agency itself would be in the executive branch, which falls under state open records laws.
Hackbarth said he wants meetings open to the public, a provision he included in his bill, but the issue about document availability was not addressed in the legislation.
“I can never recall anything not open to the public,” said St. Louis County Commissioner Tom Rukavina, a 26-year legislator and IRRRB member.
Added IRRRB Chairman Rep. Tom Anzelc, D-Balsam Township: “We support openness in government.”
Hackbarth did not react to Neumeier’s fear of lack of public access to documents, but say, “this will is about reform and transparency and accountability.”
While Anzelc said all current IRRRB members support the Sen. Tom Bakk, D-Cook, bill to turn the board into an advisory entity, Rukavina said changes are not needed. “Almost all the money at the IRRRB …. 95 percent of the money, could be pocket vetoed by the commissioner. As far as I’m concerned, there is no constitutional issue.”
The Hackbarth legislation also would require a study about whether the agency should continue to own the Giants Ridge resort.