During annual stop in Ely, legislators look toward ’17

AT GRAND ELY LODGE were St. Louis County Commissioner Tom Rukavina, Ely mayor Chuck Novak, State Sen. Tom Bakk and State Rep. Rob Ecklund for the annual area legislative meeting. Photo by Nick Wognum.

by Tom Coombe
State Sen. Tom Bakk will have a new role when Minnesota lawmakers convene in 2017.
The Cook area DFLer will continue to lead Democrats in the Senate, but this time around he will be part of the minority, rather than the majority.
A new landscape in St. Paul was one of many topics addressed by Bakk, as well as State Rep. Rob Ecklund (D - International Falls), when they spoke Monday at the annual legislative session hosted by the Ely Area Community Economic Development Joint Powers Board.
Both mixes the political realities of being part of the minority party - the House as well as the Senate will be controlled by Republicans in 2017 - with a bit of hope.
“I have a decent relationship with the (House) speaker, and the incoming majority leader is a Virginia Blue Devil,” said Bakk. “Paul Gazelka grew up in Britt.”
Bakk said the very first thing Gazelka told him after the election was “Tom, remember I am an Iron Ranger.”
Ecklund said he has developed good relationships with Republicans in his year-plus in St. Paul and pledged “to try to figure out how to get things done,” for his district, which spans from International Falls to the Ely area all the way to the North Shore.
Amid the hope, both Bakk and Ecklund conceded there’s a new reality in St. Paul come January.
“I think we’ll be playing a lot of defense,” said Ecklund.
Bakk looked ahead to the new session, which comes in the wake of good budget news for the state with projections of a roughly $1.4 billion surplus.
But before lawmakers convene in 2017, there remains unfinished business from the 2016 session and continued talk of a special session before the end of the year to pass key tax and bonding bills.
As of Monday, mayors from around the state were contacting Dayton to press for the session with a key talking point: “we need a tax bill.”
“There’s a lot of stuff in there that’s important to us,” said Bakk, noting increases in local government aid that are important to municipalities including Ely.
Should the bonding bill be resurrected and passed, it would free $1 million for the proposed Prospectors Loop ATV Trail that would link communities across the area including Ely, Babbitt, Tower and Embarrass.
Nick Wognum, part of a local steering committee, said the bonding funds together with already secured monies, and an additional $1 million that will be sought in the ’17 session, would pave the way for the development of a trail system that figures to bring more ATV riders to the region and boost the economy.
Both Bakk and Ecklund are supporters of the project.
Bakk said he expects to see legislation to relieve some of the stress faced by those facing massive health insurance increases, perhaps in the form of a rebate.
Bakk predicted a potentially long 2017 session, with Dayton’s “lame duck” status posing another obstacle.
“Lame duck governors are pretty hard to deal with because they’re not accountable to anyone,” he said.
Bakk, who has served in St. Paul since 1995, also looked back at the recent election season and the impact of outside money - and negative advertising - on campaigns.
“People use it because it works,” said Bakk.
A former legislator at the table, current county commissioner Tom Rukavina harkened back to his 26 years in St. Paul and said that the area lawmakers have a difficult task ahead of them.
“I feel bad for my two friends,” said Rukavina. “It’s not easy (being in the minority). It’s a hard adjustment.”
Rukavina also predicted that Republican control at the state and federal levels would result in a tax shift, with income tax cuts placing a larger burden on property owners.
“Everybody in this room will see their property taxes increase,” Rukavina predicted. “People should be prepared for it.”
Rukavina noted the upcoming levy hike in St. Louis County but added that “it may not hurt Ely as much because of assessed values” decreasing.
Rukavina’s daughter Ida was also present at the legislative session in her role as an aide to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
She noted Klobuchar’s number-one ranking for the amount of bills sponsored that have become law, and highlighted her efforts to fight prescription drug cost increases.
Ely native Jeff Anderson also was on hand and sent greetings from his boss, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan (D), who is returning to Congress for another two years after his recent narrow victory over Republican challenger Stewart Mills.
Anderson said Nolan is willing to work with President-Elect Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress “to do things that move our country forward,” noting potential investments in infrastructure.