Shock election to create 5-4 partisan split on IRRRB

irrrb service area

The legislature wasn’t the only thing that changed dramatically after Tuesday’s election. The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) will introduce four new members when it reconvenes in the new year. In addition to the new faces, the board will have a 5-4 DFL majority. That means the IRRRB will include the most Republicans who have ever served on the board in modern memory.

IRRRBOutgoing board chair Rep. Tom Anzelc (DFL-Balsam Township) lost his race to Republican Sandy Layman. He was due to relinquish the chairmanship anyway, but this adds an exclamation point. Sen. Tom Saxhaug (DFL-Grand Rapids) and Sen. Rod Skoe (DFL-Clearbrook) also lost their races.

Layman, who served as Commissioner of the IRRRB agency under Gov. Tim Pawlenty, will now join the board. Joining her will be State Sen.-elect Justin Eichorn (R-Grand Rapids). Skoe was an out-of-area appointment by the DFL Senate Majority. So with a Republican State Senate majority, I would expect Sen. Carrie Ruud (R-Breezy Point) to be appointed the board. State Rep. Dale Lueck (R-Aitkin) will remain on the board. State Rep.-elect Julie Sandstede (DFL-Hibbing), who was elected in Carly Melin’s former seat, will join the board with an automatic seat. That leaves Sen. Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook), Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm), State Rep. Jason Metsa (DFL-Virginia) and State Rep. Rob Ecklund (DFL-International Falls) as the remaining Democrats.

Bakk, the outgoing Senate Majority Leader, announced yesterday he will not seek election as Minority Leader. UPDATE: However, today Bakk was elected Minority Leader, suggesting the caucus couldn’t agree on an alternative. That means Tomassoni is likely to chair the IRRRB, since the chairmanship rotates between the House and Senate.

The IRRRB is a special board that overseas a unique state agency that overseas taconite production tax funding for the communities affected by iron mining. Mines don’t pay local property taxes; they pay production taxes instead. So the board acts as an economic development engine and public works agent for local communities and schools.

Though the DFL retains the majority on the IRRRB, having a one-vote margin will dramatically change the political reality of IRRRB business. The Iron Range DFL delegation is known for its unity when the Range is under attack, but in day-to-day operations they squabble nearly constantly. There won’t be much room for that if the Republicans on the board decide they want to go an entirely different direction. Further, having four members allows the GOP members to formulate strategy. All it would take is one DFL member to change the outcome of a vote.

To be clear, the IRRRB isn’t as powerful as some would make out. The Governor is the constitutional head of the IRRRB and can overrule the board in matters of agency operation. That remains rare, however, and politically charged.

The 2016 election may prove a one-time anomaly, or it may prove the harbinger of political trends in Northern Minnesota. But no leader of any party should expect business as usual to work in this environment. As I wrote in a column that will run Sunday, the future of this region will belong to those who come up with the best ideas in these tumultuous times.


  1. A more significant Republican presence on the IRRRB may be of benefit when dealing with the legislature.

    • I think that’s true, and Gregg Peppin almost said as much when I was on the radio with him, though he argues that the GOP would rather see citizens run that board than legislators.

      • I think it will make it harder for those suburban Republicans who want to raid the IRRRB piggy bank. Turning the ranges Republican has a lot of long term benefits for the party and such actions could seriously hamper such a project.

  2. Is it too much to expect our IRRRB board members to put their politics aside when it comes to IRRRB activities? We’re seeing 4 new board members, so I’d guess there would be some amount of philosophical change regardless if DFL or Republican. Possibly the Republicans will be philosophically more likely to tighten the purse-strings a bit on handouts to Giants Ridge and to municipalities, but hard to say? I like that Layman at least is very familiar with the organization and what might work and be worth trying.

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