Analysis: Slim margin in Minnesota Senate a tipping point for mining reform bills

Photo: Bao Chau via Unsplash

Jerry Burnes/Iron Range Today

A set of bills that would significantly alter the landscape of mining in Minnesota and the Iron Range face an ominous path through the Legislature, with a key senator standing in opposition and the standard partisan divide ready to tip the scales.

One of those efforts — Senate File 167 and House File 329 — would enact mining restrictions on state land in the Rainy River Watershed and squash Twin Metals Minnesota’s proposed underground copper-nickel mine near Ely. The other, S.F. 167, would transfer the responsibility of mining promotion from the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). The latter bill does not have a House companion.

The bills are far from unexpected considering the DFL trifecta and have helped provide Republicans and mining advocates with the fodder they need to rail against the new DFL majority in both chambers and the executive branch, but those cliches need not apply here in the end.

Democrats hold a 34-33 seat majority in the Senate and with Sen. Grant Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown, already out against both bills, passage through the high chamber will seemingly rely on a Republican breaking from the ranks to swing the vote back.

Until that vote is secured, the standalone versions of the bills are dead on arrival and spell out a perilous path if added onto larger bills that could require a party-line majority to pass. Senate Republicans have pushed bills deemed as overregulation of the mining industry before, but have never supported a straight-up ban or new regulatory agency. With the caucus focused on winning the two remaining Iron Range seats in future elections, it has no margin of error for defections on the issues.

Even with the larger Democrat majority of the House the companion bill will find tough sledding. Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, and previous House leadership have not allowed anti-mining legislation to reach the chamber floor in an attempt to keep the House above the fray and in part as a nod to her close partnership with Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora.

The unfavorable route forward underscores Hauschild’s comments after the election, rejecting the idea that Democrats were given a mandate by the voters and instead embracing working with legislators “with good ideas” no matter their ilk. Representing a portion of the Iron Range, him and Lislegard watched Republicans knock off two longstanding DFL incumbents in November and secure an open seat, before taking the two Democrats down the wire. At times Republicans tried to link the two Democrats to the their DFL counterparts who oppose copper-nickel mining proposals.

Efforts to stop mining in the Rainy River Watershed are also hitting roadblocks beyond St. Paul. In Washington, a new GOP majority in the House makes it unlikely that U.S. Rep. Betty McCollumn, D-Minn., can get her bill to stop the Twin Metals mine over the finish line.

Meanwhile, Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., who represents the mining region of the state, is calling for Congress to look into the Biden administration’s decision to rescind federal mineral leases from Twin Metals, while also proposing his own measure to limit the timeline of environmental reviews.

Back locally, the Senate files were sent to the Environment, Climate and Legacy Committee, which Hauschild and two of the bills’ co-authors, Sen. Kelly Morrison and Sent. Jen McEwen, also sit on. The House bill was sent to the Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee.

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