Cancer in miners: Whose problem is it?

I wrote a couple of days ago that Gov. Pawlenty doesn’t usually lose a showdown with the DFL. But this — the bill that would allocate $5 million to study lung disease among taconite workers — might be an exception.

Gov. Pawlenty, according to MPR’s Tim Pugmire, may veto the bill, because he wants to tap the Taconite Economic Development Fund, a tax on taconite companies intended to spur development on the Iron Range.

Republican Rep. Denny McNamara of Hastings gets the “money quote” of the day.

Members on the other side of the aisle, you’re going to vote to tax the snot out of everybody else and let the Iron Range skate, and they’re making money hand over fist. We’re either in a recession or on the verge of a recession throughout the state except for one spot, the Iron Range.

It’s never a good idea — politically speaking — to paint yourself into a corner, by allowing your opponents to position your position as “your cancer isn’t my problem.”

It is — and has been — Pawlenty’s problem for awhile now. His administration already was under fire for appearing to sacrifice the lives of miners by keeping secret possible evidence that there was a link between taconite and cancer.

Under the bill, says Pugmire, the bulk of the $4.9 million needed for the study would come from the surplus in a state workers compensation fund — money that comes from the state’s employers. In a way, the idea isn’t that much different from Pawlenty’s plan to take money from the Health Care Access Fund — a tax on health care providers — to help erase a budget deficit, which set a precedent for using a surplus for things it was never intended.

The money — $4.9 million — is hardly a drop in the bucket, except in comparison to, say, the $30 million the state will ship to ethanol producers, in a bill the governor signed last year.

Pawlenty, as noted before, is a very smart politician. Coming out on top with a veto of the bill will challenge that ability.

Sign or veto? What say you?

Update 10:36 p.m. Aaron J. Brown, on his outstanding blog,, points out one interesting factoid:

What Pawlenty and many outside the Iron Range often fail to understand is that our taconite tax revenue, while significant during good times (and not all times are good), is not a secret pot of cash that we use to buy beer and ammunition. It is what mining companies pay IN LIEU of PROPERTY TAX. Mines own or lease thousands of acres of enormously valuable land in northern Minnesota and they don’t pay a dime in property tax. Suburbs raise their revenue from those sleek office buildings along the freeways and in overpriced residential homes. The Iron Range raises its school and community funds from taconite taxes, and per capita we get less money over time as a result. But wait, there’s more. All the while over Range history a portion of these taconite taxes have gone to the state general fund or to the University of Minnesota fund, money that has benefited more than a million people who couldn’t find the Iron Range on a map.

  • Linda Reed

    I feel badly for those poor miners. However, it is their chosen occupation and we all know the risks involved in such work. Why should I pay for this when I have my own health concerns? State workers have money they don’t need and I think it sounds like a good way to handle the whole problem.

  • Bob Collins

    If there isn’t a public interest in health threats to Minnesotans, one might ask, what was the original purpose of the Department of Public Health conducting an analysis (which it kept secret) of the taconite-cancer link in the first place?

    But you raise an interesting point. When — if at all — when is there a public interest in public health of sectors of the population?

    For example, is there a public interest in the health effects of contamination of the public water supply in the Dakota and Washington Counties, if it doesn’t affect he other 80-whatever counties?

  • Candace L

    I think that Linda is way off base. There are issues common to all of us in the public. That’s why we get vaccinations, etc.. The problem here is that we have an administration that hid the data, putting many people and their families at risk. We ALL have an interest here.. . As I recall there was an official FIRED over this.

  • Shelly Mategko

    You are missing a couple of key points. First, there are people in Minnesota who have mesothelioma who have never worked in the mines in northern Minnesota. Second, we don’t know yet what causes this disease. We need this study to find out if it is taconite, wrappings on the pipes etc. This makes it a public health issue for all workers in Minnesota and thus the only appropriate place to obtain funding for the study is indeed the worker’s compensation fund. I have noted a tendency on the part of this administration to deny funding to anything even remotely connected to the Iron Range because “they should use IRRB money”. This is an outrage and should offend anyone with any sense of justice and fair play. The IRRB was created to disburse monies generated by the taconite tax – which is a PRODUCTION tax paid in lieu of property taxes- to local communities for projects that are usually funded by property taxes. I don’t hear anyone saying ‘Bemidji, use your property taxes to build your convention center or Minneapolis, use your property taxes to build your light rail transit system or Southern Minnesota, use your property taxes to clean up after your floods’. Such demands by this administration would likely be met by (justifiable) outrage. Yet it appears to be okay to expect that from the people of the Iron Range. Why is that?