CHISHOLM — State Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, has represented the Iron Range for roughly 20 years.
The former professional hockey player turned politician has long honed a reputation of bipartisanship among Democrats and Republican colleagues in the Legislature while remaining a staunch defender of the region’s mining industry.
The Mesabi Daily News reached out to Tomassoni after this year’s legislative session to gage his post-game thoughts about the season’s successes and failures. The local lawmaker offered his insight and opinions on a variety of topics, including education bills and tax bills, the uptick of drug use on the Range and the proposed copper-nickel mining projects from PolyMet and Twin Metals. Here, the exchange via email has been lightly edited for content and clarity.
Q: How do you rate your time during this legislative session? What bills did you get passed and why are they important? What bills didn’t pass and what are your thoughts about them?
A: I think the legislative session was a successful one. Having the only legislature in the country with a divided legislature, the scene was set for what could have been a long and arduous special session and even a possible government shutdown. Instead, a two year budget agreement was finalized with both sides getting some things and both sides not getting some things. That’s how compromise works.
Q: What DFL bills or movements did you back during the session? Q: How did Hibbing and other Iron Range cities fare this session? Did you work with Range legislators on anything in particular?
A: E-12 education got 2% and 2% increases on the formula as pre-k money, special education money, and money for school safety. Higher Ed received a $150 million increase and Local Government aid was increased to levels not seen since 2002 when it was cut drastically.
Rural Minnesota has many important issues that cross the political aisle. Our trails received lots of money including $3 million for the Mesabi Trail, $1 million for the new Bruce Headframe park, and upwards of $5 million for ATV and snowmobile trails. Much of this work was a result of working across the aisle and getting along with both parties to come up with mutually agreed upon issues. Chronic wasting disease (CWD) in our deer population was addressed through new regulations and research.
There was no general tax increase and both the middle income tax filers and social security recipients will receive tax breaks, and the provider tax was not sunsetted but reduced from 2% to 1.8%.
Some things didn’t pass. The Governor’s gas tax didn’t pass, no new gun laws were enacted, very necessary insulin legislation didn’t get to the finish line, and there was no bonding bill which was the biggest disappointment as there could have been several projects affecting the Iron Range. New wild rice legislation did not pass either.
Q: The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board is having a troubling time. What needs to be done to ensure IRRRB and others follow rules and regulations and improve?
A: As far as the IRRRB is concerned, I think we are passed the concerns, some of them real and some of them political and some of them fake. The agency responded to the legislative auditor’s report by making several internal changes and the hiring issues have been dealt with. The IRRRB is our own agency funded by our own tax dollars and must be spent on projects in the taconite assistance area. Most of the money comes from 5 of the 6 taconite plants located in the 6th senate district. While the 6th senate district gets the biggest chunk of the money, by law, much of it spread throughout the entire area. It is our job to see to it that our districts get funding for infrastructure, projects and tax relief and our board meetings are all done in public. I commend the good work of the people who work at the agency.
Finally, mining and logging make up our economy. To believe that the idea of diversifying our economy is new is just simple folly. The IRRR was established in 1941 with intent to diversify the economy of NE MN. Many successful projects have happened over the years such as the Delta Reservation Center with over 500 jobs, BCBS with over 400 and Delta Dental with over 350 jobs are just a few successes. Our healthcare industry employs several thousand but attracting and keeping new and different jobs is always a challenge. Our schools and higher ed systems have worked together to provide cutting edge education to our kids so they can be ready for the jobs of the next generation, but without the mining industry, the good paying jobs it provides and the tax revenues that make our way of life possible we would not have the lifestyle many enjoy today.
Q: What is your opinion of Cleveland Cliffs, Essar and Nashwauk mining project?
A: As to the Nashwauk site, it hasn’t been smooth sailing. I have no confidence in Essar. Hopefully, someone else buys the property and starts mining that site soon as there’s over 200 years of the best quality ore there and I for one would still like to see us eventually produce steel right here on the Iron Range. The site is permitted just for that. Cliffs has ownership of adjacent property and would be the most likely one to take over but there are many balls in the air and how we get through the current situation isn’t clear just yet.
Q: Do you support the proposed copper-nickel mining projects from PolyMet and Twin Metals?
A: I support the jobs that Polymet and Twin Metals will provide. We are sitting on top of the largest precious metal deposit in North America. These are the very same metals that are necessary for our new age energy and high tech world. Remember, if it’s not mined, logged, farmed, or drilled it probably doesn’t exist. Those upwards of 39 metals in an iPhone don’t just magically fall out of the sky and land in Apple’s factory. They all have to be mined. A windmill has over 200 tons of steel in it and between 4 and 9 tons of copper. Electric cars, computers, defense systems all depend on the metals we have here. We know how to mine. We have been doing it for over 135 years and the fact that we have the only clean water in the state indicates that we know how to do it safely. We have a clean environment and mining provides the jobs that will insure the environment stays clean. We have the laws and systems in place to insure it. It’s time to stop all the frivolous lawsuits and It’s time to mine.
Q: Legislators passed an opioid bill. That’s great. But the Iron Range is dealing with the reemergence of methamphetamine. How do we get a handle on meth? Also, we only have one residential treatment facility in Virginia. How do we get more facilities and more resources?
A: Forty million dollars was invested in broadband and nearly $21 million a year to fight opioid addiction in Minnesota by investing in new and proven strategies for treatment and prevention. Hopefully, it works but drug addiction does not have a magic wand and new and different drugs keep popping up creating huge challenges for law enforcement, mental illness and families to deal with. We can continue to pass new laws but unless we actually put the necessary rehab and treatment systems into place, we may never get a handle on the drugs.