Steve Giorgi
Executive Director
Phone: 218-780-8877
Email: SGiorgi@ramsmn.org

RAMS hearing 1940

Kawishiwi Falls - Ely MN photo by Adrian Koski 2016

Cuyuna

Moon over Queen City photo created by Matt Herberg

RAMS delegation with Senator Klobuchar

2016 Press conference on US Forest Service - Virginia, MN

DC delegation on land withdrawal 2017

Mayor Rick Cannata Wild RIce/Sulfate rally

New bridge at night photo by P Pluswick

Hwy 53 bridge Nov 2016 photo by F Luomanen

Pike Bay Marina Lake Vermilion

Tom Rukavina at rally prior to MPCA hearing at MCC

Ely Legislative Lunch

Session 2019


RAMS Legislative Report

April 23, 2019 from Gary Cerkvenik – RAMS Lobbyist

The Minnesota Legislature returns today following a 10-day break for Easter/Passover.  Less than four weeks remain to complete the state’s business until the constitutionally mandatory end of the session on May 20.  Minnesota has the only split legislature of the 50 states, with the Senate controlled by the Republican Party and the House controlled by the Democrat Farmer Labor Party.

The Governor and the House have proposed significant increases in spending through federal tax conformity, a 20-cent increase in the gas tax, extension of the health care provider tax, etc.  The Senate has not included these items, and thus the two main parties are apart significantly on how large the budget will be over the next two years.  By agreement, the House and Senate will pass their respective major spending bills and appoint conferees by May  1, and the Senate, House, and Governor will try to set “spending targets” by May 6th.  Conference committees have to agree by May 13.

The big issues are the size of the tax bill, will there be a gas tax increase, will there be a bonding bill, and will there be a provider tax extension?

On our specific RAMS issues:

Broadband.  It looks like there will be a sizable broadband appropriation in the range of $35-50 million to fund statewide broadband issues.  The House failed to include our proposal to fund the middle mile project at $3.2 million.  We will continue to try to get this earmark in the conference report.  Our own Rep. Ecklund is the leader on this work.

Taconite Municipal Aid.  The RAMS initiative to increase Taconite Municipal Aid to 1983 levels, add an annual escalator, and to get rid of the reduction in aid provision when production drops below 40 million tons is in the House Tax Bill, thanks to the diligent work of Rep. Lislegard.  The Senate bill does not include this provision.

The Hill Annex mine has received a specific appropriation to keep it open as a state park in the House Environmental Finance bill.

Funding for $4.5 million for the Caniesto mine, Hill Annex mine, and St. James pit water diversion projects did not survive in the House or Senate omnibus bills.  However, $200,000 is in the House bonding bill for the Western mines only, specifically leaving out St. James.

LGA.  Good news, as the House appropriates an additional $30 million for LGA, bringing it up to a level achieved several years ago.  And it also includes $5.4 million one-time grant to Virginia to finish paying for the Hwy 53 project, advocated by Rep. Lislegard and Sen. Tomassoni.

The RAMS initiative to provide additional money for older building maintenance did not get into either the House or Senate Education finance bills.  However, upon investigation, there is an older building aid formula that many Iron Range schools receive, and we will continue to work to increase that formula.

Summer school.  Great news, Sen. Tomassoni manage to get $802,000 in the Senate Education Finance bill for the 6-school summer program.  We hope to retain this in conference in the House.

Our proposal to mandate US Hwy 169 four lane construction in the MN DOT ten-year plan did not get a hearing.  However, we are working with MN DOT to advance funding for this project.

Buhl School.  Sen. Tomassoni is working to try to include funding for the renovation of the Buhl School in the Senate bonding bill if one develops later in the session.  Unfortunately, North Homes, Inc., decided to suspend its current effort to expand children’s mental health programs into the Buhl school, so that hurt our effort.  We remain focused to try to expand programming in this area for our region.

RAMS fought off efforts by St. Louis County to take 5 cents per ton from the Iron Range School account and efforts to appropriate $5 million for the DJJ Fund for a scholarship program for area community colleges, including a school in Duluth.

Your RAMS Executive Director continues to play a leading role on Wild Rice for our industry and communities, as well as advocating for area mining projects.  Sen. Eichorn has been a leader on the Wild Rice issue and how it may effect our jobs and communities.

In terms of a bonding bill, the Governor proposed $1.2 billion with no local projects.  The House released their bonding bill at $1.5 billion.  The Senate has not held any bonding hearings this session.  Most folks believe there will be a small bonding bill agreed to at the end of session, but much smaller than the House or Governor desire.  As this gets more serious, we will report in greater detail.

Finally, both the House and Senate have appropriated large sums of grant money to continue to build out ATV trail systems from the Quad Cities to Voyageurs National Park to Ely and Lake County.  Sen. Bakk, Rep. Ecklund, Sen. Tomassoni, Sen. Eichorn, Rep. Lueck, and Rep. Lislegard have been leaders on this issue.

 2019 – APRIL LEGISLATIVE UPDATE…
 As of today, April 8, 2019 there have been 2824 bills introduced in the House with the Senate just a few bills behind. Out of that mass of bills 4 have actually been passed by both parties and sent to the Governor and approved.  With the Easter recess coming next week, the Minnesota Legislature is facing many long days in St. Paul with major bills including a balanced budget, education funding, health and human services, transportation, health care tax for MN Care and a possibly moderately sized bonding bill all needing to be resolved before the May 20 deadline.

Governor Walz in his “state of the State” speech offered up a hope for compromise and indicated a willingness to moderate his position on his proposed $.20 gas tax over 4 years.  The Senate has made it clear they will not support a gas tax in any form so this debate will be interesting. Funding for education provides another debate with the Governor proposing 3% year one and 2% year two for the basic per pupil formula that would result in an increase of $520 million dollars.  The Senate proposal is 1% each year and would likely result in more local referendums to keep districts solvent.  Stay tuned for futher updates.

 

DAILY SESSION UPDATES

Click Here for Daily Updates

RAMS –  2019 LEGISLATIVE PRIORITIES:

  1. Broadband expansion across the Taconite Assistance Area –(long term goal).  RAMS is a member of MN Rural Broadband Coalition (Director Giorgi serves on the Executive Board) this year and that group will provide more visibility, focus and advocacy for broadband funding.  Support funding of the Office of Broadband. Fund the Border to Border Broadband Fund ($70 million recommendation)  Fix the Border to Border Broadband Fund – certain policy impede the advancement of broadband expansion and a new standard for broadband networks should be included at 100 Mb/20 Mb when installed.
  2. Protect and preserve Local Government Aide payments while working with Governor Walz to return the LGA formula to the 1993 levels.
  3. Amend the Municipal Tax Aide formula in the Taconite Tax Formula to provide for an increase to our municipalites, something that has not occurred since 1983.  By dedicating the price inflation index or escalator clause to the Municipal Aide formula, communities would be assured of a slight adjustment each year in the fund dependent of course on total taconite tonnage.
  4. Request that the MN DOT plan include completion of Highway 169 to complete 4 lanes of traffic from highway 65 to the Scenic highway.  This project was started in the mid “60’s and is still unfinished.  It currently is not in the 10 year DOT plan for our region and that needs to be addressed.
  5. Address the future operation of the Hill Annex Mine (State Park). The DNR should continue to operate the park as it has significant historic value not only in the region but for the state.
  6. Address the need for additional funding for rural mental health care that includes addressing the severe shortage of juvenile mental health care beds and facilities.  RAMS supports legislative funding that would provide for a new youth mental health crisis center to be located in the former Buhl High School.
  7. Support funding for the routing and pumping of rising pit water levels in the Canisteo Mine Pit chain as well as the St. James pit in Aurora. $4.5 million has been estimated to assure these pit water levels will be contained and controlled to assure communities are safe and have a reliable potable water supply.
  8. Support an annual increase in the education formula as well as support for Senator Bakk’s legislation to provide funding to the Iron Range School collaboration that will provide summer school opportunities for vocational curriculum programs.  Funding for aging school buildings is also on the list.
  9. Support legislation that will provide funding to communities who will be faced with a new Presidential primary and restrict the dissemination of party declarations information.
  10. RAMS will pursue funding for a fiber optic connector loop that runs through Carlton, Aitkin and Pine Counties that will enhance the NESC middle mile fiber and provide reduced broadband rates, assure redundancy for the entire network, improve and increase many times over the gigabit services available across the network.  For $3.5 million dollar investment, this would benefit 7 counties.

 

Message From Director

2018 was another year of challenges for RAMS as an organization, and for the Range as a region. Much time and energy was spent trying to find a solution for the wild rice/sulfate standard issue that threatens the economic viability of our mining industry and local communities. While there was bi-partisan support in the legislature to find a meaningful solution, the Governor ultimately vetoed all options and left the problem for the next administration. Once again, this issue has been kicked down the road leaving the debate smoldering for another year,

2018 also left the Range and the region without any advancement in the expansion of rural, quality broadband, the economic engine for job diversification and growth in our region. The Minnesota Border to Border Broadband grant program was left unfunded after the paltry $15 million allocated by the legislature was vetoed in the 990 page omnibus tax bill by Governor Dayton. While Range communities have engaged in surveys, studies and conversations about broadband needs and possible expansion thanks to a Blandin – IRRRB grant program, without State, Federal and private funding, the expansion of rural broadband will remain an empty promise. RAMS and the MN Rural Broadband Coalition will lobby for $69 million in base funding for the Border to Border grant program during the 2019 session and have secured the support of Rep. Rob Ecklund as the chief author of the bill in the House. Sen Erik Simonson will be the lead author in the Senate and the Range delegation as a whole is a strong advocate for this funding request. One positive note, due to the diligence of an Iron Range broadband committee, a potential broadband project is being developed in conjunction with the NESC middle mile fiber as the backbone and CTC as the last mile provider…the City of Ely is also close to commencing a project to connect fiber to their downtown business core in 2019 …STAY TUNED!

2018 saw some positive developments for our region when the Trump administration lifted the 2 year moratorium on nearly a half million acres in the Rainy River Watershed. Finding no new evidence to conduct yet another environmental review, this action allowed for a renewed level of activity by multiple exploratory mining companies in the region. The Trump administration also approved the land exchange between PolyMet and the USFS that had lingered on far too long. Congressman Nolan succeeded in passing legislation on the land exchange that would void any legal recourse on the land exchange but to date the Senate has not been able to pass similar legislation despite the valiant efforts of both of our U.S. Senators. At the state level, both the DNR and the MPCA have issued the final permits required for the PolyMet project including the first ever permit to mine for a non-ferrous mining operation in the history of Minnesota mining.

2018 should also be remembered as the year two Iron Range rival communities joined together for serious discussions on joining forces to create a world class educational academy. Virginia and Eveleth/Gilbert school districts, led by two courageous and progressive leaders, Dr. Noel Schmidt and Jeff Carey, superintendents of those districts commenced conversations between their school boards and ultimately, their communities on the need for a real change in the delivery of education for future generations of Iron Rangers. These discussions should result in referendums held in both districts sometime in 2019 that could lead to a new campus, a new partnership, and a real enhancement in learning for generations to come. Congratulations to both districts and their communities for taking on this significant challenge for all the right reasons.

RAMS hosted numerous “Lunch & Learn” forums this past year brining our community leaders together to learn more about programs and opportunities available through DEED, MN HFA, or the PFA that can enhance the quality of life in their communities while minimizing the financial impact on local economies. The Northland Foundation took the lead in the region trying to address the child care shortage that is creating real concerns for employers on the Range. The IRRRB provided a grant that enabled a brave entrepreneur to open a new child care facility in Mt. Iron providing over 80 child care spots. Conversations on joint fire and ambulance services are taking place across the Range between multiple communities, and the Range mayors continue to meet on a regular basis to discuss best practices, how to share services and they remain committed to building a better future for their downtown corridors and communities.

I also have the pleasure of working with Range superintendents and appreciate hearing first hand of their tireless efforts to improve the educational opportunities for students across the region. Taking advantage of programs like EIP, (Education Innovation Partners) Joe Silko, and ALI (Applied Learning Initiative) Roy Smith, our Iron Range districts work hard to stay current and competitive with districts in larger and more affluent areas of the state. A number of districts are now working together via telepresence and other initiatives to provide a much more expansive curriculum to students than can be provided by individual districts on their own.

2019 is the 80th anniversary for RAMS as an organization. 80 years of challenges, up and downs, set-backs and victories. RAMS started in 1939 because of the threat imposed by the Oliver Mining Company to change the taxation of iron ore and the assessment of iron ore rich properties in our communities. RAMS and Fred Cina (the Godfather of RAMS) led the charge to approve the Taconite Tax amendment, RAMS sent a resolution to Congress in the ‘50’s in support of copper nickel and silver mining on the Range. RAMS has supported changes in how our schools are funded and successfully lobbied to secure $38 million dollars for capital improvements for our Iron Range schools. RAMS as an organization will remain engaged in the issues that impact our region. We will continue to march along with Jobs for Minnesotans and Nancy Norr, MinnesotaMining and Frank Ongaro, our friends in labor, trades, chambers and business as we make our voices and presence heard whether it be in St. Paul or Washington DC. Challenges will be ever present for our region our communities our schools, but for the past 80 years because of your steadfast support, RAMS has been a strong, recognized advocate for our region. 2019 will be a year of celebration and hopefully one filled with small victories for the Range. As the director I am confident that our board of directors, 24 dedicated and tireless public officials will continue working on your behalf, growing ever stronger – ONE RANGE – ONE VOICE, for another 80 years.

THANKS SO MUCH FOR YOUR SUPPORT, FOR YOUR ATTENDANCE AND FOR ALL THAT YOU DO AS AN ELECTED OFFICIAL, AS A BUSINESS, AS A SUPPORTING SPOUSE TO ALLOW US COLLECTIVELY TO WORK EACH AND EVERY DAY TO MAKE TOMORROW BETTER FOR OUR NEXT GENERATION.



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