What next for Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation?

Minnesota Gov.-elect Tim Walz launched his official administrative transition team this week.

Walz and retiring Gov. Mark Dayton both hail from the Democratic Farmer Labor Party, so we can expect some continuity in policy and certain key staff positions. Nevertheless, many new people will hold high level state posts when Walz takes office in 2019. Further, slight changes in priorities could produce different policies under the new administration.

That’s particularly true at the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation.

Change at the IRRRB

Still known locally by its original legislative moniker, the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) quietly changed in the last several years. (What is that? See “What the Heck is the IRRRB?“)

Commissioner Mark Phillips has led the agency since 2015. He took over for Dayton’s original IRRRB commissioner Tony Sertich who left for a job in the nonprofit sector. Before Sertich’s appointment in 2011, Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s Iron Range Resources commissioner was Sandy Layman, who now serves in the state legislature.

During this time, the agency changed its name four times along with a host of new initiatives. But the most change occurred in just these past two years following a scathing review from the Office of the Legislative Auditor. In response to criticism that the agency’s oversight was in violation of state law, the board now serves in an advisory role. That means that the governor and his or her commissioner is more powerful than before.

Powerful, but not all-powerful. Nine lawmakers of both parties still sit on the board and possess the ability to make life hard for the commissioner.

Further, this uniquely regional state agency is fully immeshed with local governments. The Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation is headquartered so far North that most Minnesotans don’t know it exists. These two factors make the agency a sort of fiefdom, a strange political agora of hopes, dreams and folding money.

As a result, agency priorities have too often been dictated by what I’ve termed a “lobbying cycle.” People who have developed expertise in navigating the system know how to twist the right arms to get their projects to the top of the list. In practice, this has smothered efforts to make long term strategic plans for the Iron Range.

In this, Phillips deserves credit for his recent leadership. The agency shifted its focus to small projects, community improvements and support for existing business expansion. Though large failures of previous years remain on the ledger, recent small successes provide encouragement.

Phillips, however, is retiring. UPDATE: I’ve since heard that Phillips will apply for reappointment after all. Nevertheless, recent reforms will be tested by the next commissioner.

The next commissioner

Local economic development professionals. Current or former lawmakers. Veterans of state administration with Iron Range roots. These are common pools that produce IRRR commissioners, including each of the last three, respectively.

It’s possible that Gov.-elect Walz will select another person of this description. But he could also go an entirely different direction. He could pick a business owner, a reformer, a teacher, a social services expert, a doctor or nonprofit director.

Whoever he picks will face a new climate. In 2010, Gov. Mark Dayton saw the Iron Range the way the last 10 governors did: a rock-ribbed DFL fortress led by an eccentric, tight-knit political network.

Today, Gov.-elect Walz finds an Iron Range that no longer guarantees big DFL margins. The board is controlled by a slim 5-4 DFL majority. The old political networks are aging and losing their grip on power. New leadership is emerging around the region, but hasn’t yet found a solid platform.

Further, local politics makes picking a commissioner tricky. People in Mountain Iron distrust Grand Rapids. Hibbing’s too far away for Chisholm, but not far enough for Ely. An elected official or administrator from any given town immediately faces accusations of helping his or her people at the expense of everyone else. Ancient blood feuds. Unresolved hockey fights from 1974. Many ghosts live here.

Another complicating factor: the white-hot litmus test of mining politics. Mining taxes fund Iron Range Resources. So, we assume that its commissioner will broadly support mining. But is supporting mining enough? As I’ve learned writing this blog, espousing economic diversification is perceived by some as impurity on the mining issue.

As a result, far too many struggle to walk in the front door of the gum chewing convention.

The stakes are high

Right now, Minnesota’s iron ore industry is running hot. Automation reduces the effect on employment, but it doesn’t affect the production tax. So for the next few years at least, Iron Range Resources will have enough money to engage in new initiatives and support business ideas. That’s critical. Because whether the next downturn happens in a year or five years, we’ve learned that the mines come back just a little bit leaner every time.

That’s why the agency’s mission of economic redevelopment of the region is so important, and why we can’t count on limitless chances to broaden the Iron Range economy.

Public meetings

The Walz-Flanagan transition team will host two public listening sessions regarding the direction of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation and the hiring of the next commissioner.

The first is at 7 tonight at the Aurora Community Center at 15 1st Avenue North in Aurora. The second is Friday at 4 p.m. at Johnson Hall on the campus of Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids.

Both meetings will introduce members of the transition team, explain the process of applying for jobs, and listen to citizens with views about the Department of Iron Range Resources.

I’m fortunate to have readers of many different political stripes. I’d encourage all of you to attend one of these meetings to offer your thoughts. As arcane as local politics and state bureaucracy can seem, the outcome matters.

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