IRRRB transparency provision searches for daylight

Over the weekend, Peter Passi of the Duluth News Tribune continued his coverage of Rep. Tom Anzelc’s bill to end an unusual privacy provision on the books at the IRRRB.*

The rule was adopted without debate four years ago and shields much of this unique state agency’s loan agreement data from the public, something that is not the case in other government agencies.

The story also details a dispute over whether the privacy provision was put in place to benefit Excelsior Energy, the company that was on the hot seat at the time Sen. Tom Bakk tucked the rule into that conference committee bill in 2008. Excelsior officials say they didn’t request the change and Bakk said it was then-IRRRB commissioner Sandy Layman who did.

If that’s true, then the privacy restrictions would better be classified as a response to the embarrassment of a legislative auditor’s negative report on the Excelsior loans than a favor for Excelsior. In either event, the current language is indefensible. The ways in which public loan money are generally used should be public, no matter who receives them. While there might be elements of corporate data that could plausibly be considered private, the general execution of those loans should be reviewable by citizens.

The counter argument, that developers wouldn’t want to work on the Range because of this bill, remains laughable and should be treated as drivel. The only reason this bill is on the books is because the agency was burned under a series of bad decisions made in previous years. Covering up bad decisions does not improve the fortunes of bad ideas. A solid business plan would still be eligible for IRRRB loan support and would be equally likely to succeed or fail on its own merits.

Notably, Commissioner Tony Sertich said this in the story:

“My position is that if we’re spending public money, the public has a right to know where it was spent,” he said, maintaining that the agency has been open and up-front about every loan it has made.

But he said the IRRRB also collects sensitive private data to do risk assessments that must be treated with care.

“I would like to see this whole issue resolved,” Sertich said. “I want to see if there is a way we can craft a solution that makes the use of public dollars public and that still allows private money to remain private.”

Sertich expressed his hope the issue can be resolved during the current session, in an effort to restore public trust in the IRRRB.

That’s workable, as I see it. If a company asks for a $1 million loan and the IRRRB grants it, the people of the Iron Range should know what it’s for and how it was ultimately spent. If it was spent on jobs, steel beams and dirt work, I think people would be pretty happy about that. If it was spent on a cavalcade of Twin Cities law firms who also happen to be lobbying firms, then the people have a right to know that’s where it went. If the company wants to spend their own money for such purposes, they could do so privately.

So the bill has advanced in the House and has a chance of passing. The lack of a Senate sponsor, however, is holding back the bill. No Range senator has stepped forward, nor has any other DFLer. Sen. Tom Bakk seems particularly intent on keeping it out of his caucus. Republicans seem to be somewhat open to the idea, but possibly not enough to actually carry the bill. There might only be one more week to resolve this, and it will be amid the fervor of the Vikings stadium debate and bonding bill negotiations.

This seems a worthy cause for one of the Republican Senators on the IRRRB to champion. Sen. Gazelka? Sen. Carlson? Now would be a great time for some bipartisanship. I don’t see this as a partisan issue but rather one about power and the public good.

* DISCLOSURE: I am a friend of Tom Anzelc’s and have run his legislative campaigns during his time in the State House. The opinions expressed here are my own.


  1. I live in the western part of the Iron Range,and I am a Democrat. I am deeply ashamed of all the Range Dem senators and reps who have not supported Anzelc’s bill. Their silence speaks loudly. I agree with Aaron their counter arguments are sheer bunk.

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