2014: The Year Ahead for Northern Minnesota

It was at least 26 below zero at the bus stop this morning, though our thermometer is near the kitchen window and it was probably colder. I saw someone post 40 below up near Bigfork, which is just a few miles north of us. It’s funny how the early cold snap in December had everyone talking about school cancellations, but today — the first day back from winter break — the thought never crossed our minds. Bite the bullet; Winter #1 is done and now it’s time for Winter #2, and everyone knows the second one is always tougher. The bus door froze shut before the boys could climb aboard. A swift kick from the driver and winter break officially ended.

For them, and for me. I’ve got a ton of work at my real job waiting for me, along with radio show and other writing work. So I can’t say I’ll be blogging heavily through the next 10 days. But I do hope to cover a few things I’ve been sitting on for a while, and today offer a few broad thoughts.

You might have seen my 2013 “Top Posts and Year-in-Review” post from earlier in the week. And you’ll want to check back for my annual “Oracle of the Sax-Zim Bog” column this Sunday. Today I’m going to post a few items for discussion; the northern Minnesota news stories I’ll be following in 2014.

Mining Crossroads

Sure, the public comments period for PolyMet’s EIS is underway, with several contentious hearings over the next few weeks. But that won’t generate the most important news in this controversial story. What line in the sand will regulatory agencies draw regarding the long term mitigation costs (financial assurances) in issuing permits to PolyMet? We might find out in a few months. Also, we will see if the big, new, private investment PolyMet needs to start mining comes, or not.

Twin Metals and other projects follow PolyMet on the docket, so we should all gird for the reality that we’ll be doing this again, and again, and again for years to come; unless we break up the logjam between promises and fears on this supposedly cleaner technology.

Aaron J. Brown

August’s “Harvest Moon,” seen perched over the new smokestack at Essar Steel.

And here’s another big mining story: What is the deal with Essar? I mean, for real. We know Essar Minnesota is building a taconite plant near Nashwauk, one that officials say will be ready to produce pellets by the end of this year or very early next. Essar Steel, the relatively new international steelmaking giant based in India, has struggled mightily to finance this project. Further, it has essentially abandoned any efforts to add a steel mill to the current project: a taconite plant built on the site of a former taconite plant closed in the 1980s.

That’s a key detail, because Essar pulled a vast amount of state and Iron Range regional tax money to help with project infrastructure, premised on the idea that the project would be a “value-added” endeavor that produced steel on the Range for the first time ever. It would not have drawn as much public support had it said it was going to be a taconite mine, not unlike the other taconite mines on the Iron Range who would surely have also enjoyed tens of millions of dollars in free railroad and power line construction.

This will essentially force a reckoning in 2014. Essar will have to pay back much of the money it’s received, and pay full taxes on the new iron ore production next year — two things it hadn’t planned to do. Or, local and state officials will have to publicly “eat it,” something that will cause howls of protest from other iron mining operations and, one would imagine, citizens, taxpayers and voters.

Most likely outcome? Well, I think we’ll have a new taconite plant on the western Mesabi, but I’d be surprised if Essar was the one running it when the green button is pushed.


The 2014 election is a little hard to read right now. Voter anger both here and across the country is pretty high. And while a lot of that anger is directed at President Obama and the Democratic Senate, an equally high or higher amount of anger is directed at Republicans in the House. Fact is, both parties had some major missteps in the last year. The Republicans shut down the federal government for no good reason and continue to obsess over social issues and divisive culture wars. The Democrats, particularly the president’s administration, failed in initial execution of their most important political program in a generation: the Affordable Care Act.

Now, I have my views on this. The ACA implementation is working in some places, and, while maddeningly difficult to figure out at first, seems to be improving. Further, Democrats tried to do something and failed the first time. The Republicans tried to do nothing and failed. At some point the nihilism and ideological furor of the current GOP will be play out as a losing strategy. Meantime, as millions more people get affordable health insurance over the next few months, some for the first time ever, it will get harder to argue that Obamacare should be repealed, or that death panels are real, etc.

My point is, expect just about anything to happen in the 2014 midterms. I think Republicans could sweep Congress, but that Democrats have a chance at holding the Senate. In Minnesota, only the state House is up this year. Could Republicans win there? Yes, but same deal: I can imagine the state DFL holding a thin line there.

In northern Minnesota, we’ve already seen one big retirement with Rep. Tom Huntley (more candidates lining up to replace him every day). There could be others, and there could be some intrigue in some of these races — particularly ones that were fairly close last time. But it seems to me that both sides seem to be arming for suburban warfare, with some interest in flipping rural seats, but not as a top priority.

The Minnesota GOP must be so frustrated knowing that the top line races — governor and U.S. Senate — have the potential to become very competitive, but that their own divided primary fields will probably prevent them from becoming winnable. At this point, a strong GOP wave would be needed to take these races — the kind of wave that would negate all of my previous analysis. But conventional wisdom on this election has tilted back and forth twice already. People are deeply sick of contemporary politics, and will continue jerking back and forth on the partisan index until something sane and stable takes root.

I hope to have enough time to do a proper job following the elections.

What else are you watching for 2014?


  1. David Gray says

    The ACA certainly does produce some winners among the electorate. The bad news for Democrats is this is only true in demographics where they already have a lock. The ACA is devastating demographics that are competitive between the parties. It is going to be like when Pharaoh refused to let Israel leave Egypt, the angel of death (the ACA) will be going house by house wreaking devastation. Unlike some issues it won’t matter whether the media covers it or not because the damage done will be blindingly obvious to the individual/family damaged and they will know precisely which party has done that damage. There was not a single Republican vote for this monstrosity so the Democrats own it. And it will only get worse over the next 1-2 years. The website farce means very little. It is the guts of the law which is going to wreak havoc.

    People should bear in mind that 80% of the population was happy with their own personal insurance prior to the ACA. The bulk of those people are going to be paying more, generally much more, for their insurance. There is zero chance of the Democrats retaking the House, they’ll probably lose seats and increase the Republican majority. The Democrats are in serious jeopardy in the Senate. Obama was wise that the most meaningful parts of the ACA didn’t take effect until after his reelection. His fellow Democrats will not be so fortunate.

  2. David Gray says

    Sigh, they will “know” precisely which party has done that damage.

    My kingdom for an edit feature.

    • I fixed it for you. 🙂

      I agree that the Democrats have little chance of taking the U.S. House. I think they have a 50/50 chance of keeping the Senate. There is so much volatility now that it’s hard to know how the race will play out.

      I think most people had a bad initial experience with the ACA and that is the cause of the law’s overwhelming unpopularity right now. But the provisions of the law are still in effect and, in time, will become – if not popular – than certainly *part of the fabric of our understanding of health care*. We will NEVER go back to the barbarism of screening for preexisting conditions, or the financial chaos that befell a person who had something bad happen to them while they weren’t covered. People will be covered. Will the system change? Certainly. It should and must. You and I may disagree about the direction of those changes, but that’s precisely the point of a democratic process.

  3. David Gray says


    I think some of the unpopularity does derive from the botched roll out but the problem for the Democrats is ultimately the fundamentals of ACA are going to be the real problem for a huge portion of the electorate. People who were happy with their insurance (80%) and not going to be happy any time soon with higher payments and huge deductibles. Nor are they going to forget the deceit involved in “you can keep your plan” and “you can keep your doctor.” This has the potential to be a Herbert Hoover moment for the Democrats.

    There are people who benefit from ACA but as I observed above most of them were in demographics where the Democrats had a lock. And when ACA is repealed you can be sure that portability and preexisting conditions will be addressed, there were sound proposals addressing those issues prior to the ACA’s passage. In a sense those issues are peripheral to where the main ACA action/carnage is taking place. And it is going to get much, much worse when employers start cutting employees adrift to go to the exchanges over the next 1-2 years. So far it is primarily self-insured people who are suffering at the ACA’s hands. Franken should be very happy that he doesn’t have a well known opponent at this time. But it is going to be bad enough that he should still be very nervous.

  4. I guess we’ll see. I don’t know if the number of people negatively affected by the ACA will outstrip the number positively affected. In the long run, I think universal coverage will be well worth it in overall price controls *over time*. The system was broken. We could have fixed it one of many ways, all of which would bother certain people more than others.

    I believe that we must detach health coverage from employment — for the good of the economy, the flexibility of business, and the economic independence of the individual. But that means we need to negotiate higher wages for workers, to recognize the enormous cost savings to employers. Or else go to the far more humane and time tested system of universal, single-payer health care! But I don’t expect us to agree on that, either. 🙂

  5. You say “never” Aaron? You think BOcare is settled law? Prohibition taught us not even a constitutional amendment is settled law and BOcare is simply a big unread law, not a constitutional amendment. If something is evil enough, and as BOcare gets read and its insaneness is understood…and as Americans see the clear alternative, BO along with his “care” and those who support it will be gone..

  6. What alternative you say? It’s simple….a much freer health care and health insurance market. It would deliver high quality and technically innovative care at much lower cost. Yes, the current U.S. health-care market is inefficient and costly. The reason is simple…health care and health insurance is strongly protected from competition. There are explicit barriers to entry, laws in many states require a “certificate of need” before one can build a new hospital. Why?? Look no further than what’s going on in Grand Rapids. Hospitals whose main clients are the government cannot innovate and provide efficient service. BOcare really exacerbates this.
    We need to permit the strategies of the Southwest Airlines, the Wal-Marts, the Amazon.coms and Apples of the world to bring to health care the same dramatic improvements in price, quality, variety, technology and efficiency that they brought to air travel, retail and electronics. We’ll know we are there when prices are on hospital websites, cash customers get discounts, and new hospitals and insurers swamp your inbox with attractive offers and great service.
    BOcare bets instead that more regulation, price controls and effectiveness (death) panels will force efficiency, innovation, quality and service from the top down. Has this ever worked? Did we get smartphones by government edit? Did effectiveness panels force United Airlines and American Airlines to cut costs, and push TWA and Pan Am out of business? Did the post office invent FedEx, UPS and email? How about public schools vs. private? How are those government run institutional dinosaurs doing compared to the rest of the world?
    Deregulation and disruptive competition will drive out old health care businesses and bring in new efficient, lower cost and innovative health care businesses. And they won’t be, can’t be, government run. Government isn’t designed to be efficient or innovative….and certainly not low cost. Did you get your $2,500 BOcare refund check yet? I haven’t.

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