Sunday, April 03, 2011 By Aaron Brown
Today's Range pioneers must break the circle
By Aaron J. Brown
No position, no land, no political condition may be defended indefinitely. Always in history the walls fall, the barbarians throw open the gates. The same is true here today on the Iron Range. Our defenses are failing. We must begin a new campaign for social territory, prosperity and the values which lifted an immigrant people from poverty to prominence.
By now you've heard that House and Senate Republicans advanced bills raiding an economic development fund administered by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. Named for Douglas J. Johnson after the state senator's retirement, this fund capitalizes projects throughout the Range using interest from the region's taconite production tax revenue. Local lawmakers, both DFL and GOP, expressed anger and frustration over the nabbing.
The outrage is well deserved. The dollars from the Johnson Fund are derived from mining production tax revenue, the Iron Range equivalent of property taxes. No state dollars have ever gone into the fund, nor was it ever intended to be used to fix a state budget crisis. Indeed, the act of taking this money is similar to asking a major city to ship its cash reserves to St. Paul, never to be returned or even acknowledged.
No Range citizen of any political stripe should abide this sort of unfair, sham solution to our budget predicament, particularly when a small region like the Range is bled out like an animal so that others may be spared any sacrifice whatsoever. All this, of course, represents a political argument repeated countless times in recent years. I've repeated it myself and there'd be little reason to repeat it again if there weren't such a new urgency.
The concern is this could happen. Only Gov. Mark Dayton can stop it this year. Even if he does, he can't forever, nor can we hold off wary urban liberals and suburban conservatives for much longer.
Those disinclined to pass favor or interest toward Range simply will not change their minds, not now. Sometimes the sin is rank partisanship, ours or theirs. Sometimes the sin is the continuation of failed policies, the propping up of an abject failure like Excelsior Energy or the practice of running new projects through the same group of lobbyists. The people are confused by promises and leaders in St. Paul can't understand why this should be allowed to continue.
It shouldn't. We need change.
With taconite poised to have a very strong 2011, this economic development fund might seem only a parochial concern. It is not. Defunded, our ability to recover from the next inevitable drop in global steel prices or industry reorganization will be deeply compromised.
Mining, the primary economic driver of our region, will end forever at some yet unknown time in the future. No other region faces such a specific existential threat to it's economy. For half a century the Range survived down times in mining with the economic development and tax credits afforded by the IRRRB. The agency and its funds are vitally important to any hope of economic diversification beyond mining, and it is more of a prayer than a plan at this point.
Nevertheless, the status quo is not defensible. I won't try anymore, nor should Iron Range leaders. We must demand a new way forward, for there is no reason to give up hope.
Last week I wrote about our region's population. It's not dropping, so much as aging, become less economically vibrant. We could survive as a tourist draw, retirement home and sometimes mineral colony indefinitely, just not particularly well. What if, instead of holding money in ways that are sorely misunderstood around the state, the IRRRB and entire Range focused on efforts that would address our greatest need: a welcoming environment for young families and entrepreneurs.
Schools. Communities. Measurable goals and accountability, to be enforced by the people of the Iron Range.
Sometimes Great Plains pioneers circled the wagons to fight off external threats. They would fight and fight. Their defensive position would often allow them to survive, move on. But the Range has circled the wagons since we lost Rudy Perpich and we've lost much more since. It is time to break the circle, ride hard and fast at the horizon. Our hands should reach forward toward what really matters, instead of covering our eyes or being chopped off after 20 years of mad flailing.
This storm will not pass. We must ride.
Aaron J. Brown is a writer and community college instructor from the Iron Range. Read more at his blog MinnesotaBrown.com or in his book "Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range."