HIBBING — Nearly a month after the Minnesota Legislature ended the special session, State Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-District 6A, held a Town Hall meeting in the Hibbing Memorial Building.
Sandstede held the meetings on June 27 in Hibbing and the second on July 8 in Floodwood City Hall — in hopes of providing “an overview of what happened during the session, what didn’t, and what it means for our community.”
In the basement of the Memorial Building, the hometown school teacher turned politician warmly greeted about 20 citizens, many of whom she knew on a first name basis. “This is not a partisan meeting. This is not a DFL or Republican meeting. This is me reconnecting with constituents from the district to hear from you what’s working, what’s not working and what you want in the future.”
Sandstede touched on a variety of topics, including DFL Gov. Tim Walz’s efforts with the GOP in the House and DFL in the Senate toward the Legislature’s passing of a $48.3 billion budget and the passing of a much touted bill meant to hold drug companies responsible for the cost of the state’s opioid crisis.
In the hopes of relaying the on-the-ground conversations with even more individuals, the HDT sent her followup questions. Below, Sandstede describes how she represented her constituents at the legislative session. The exchange via email has been lightly edited for content and clarity.
Q: How do you rate your time during this legislative session? What bills did you get passed and why are they important? What bills didn’t pass and what are your thoughts about them?
A: This legislative session was extremely productive, highlighting that even with divided government, it’s possible to reach compromise and deliver results improving the lives of Minnesotans. Serving as the Vice Chair of the Education Finance Division, I’m especially proud of the investments we made in Minnesota’s students, with per-pupil increases as well as new funding for special education and protecting voluntary pre-K opportunities. There’s certainly more to do, including expanding strategies like full-service community schools, and funding challenges for communities certainly aren’t disappearing which we will again need to address.
One initiative I worked extremely hard to get passed requires 911 dispatchers to be trained in providing CPR instructions over the phone, or alternatively, transfer a call to someone who is. In rural areas, response times for first responders can be quite lengthy and when someone is experiencing cardiac arrest, seconds count. Instructions to calmly and effectively perform CPR can mean the difference between life and death. I’m confident that this provision, signed into law by Governor Walz, will save lives.
I also successfully carried legislation allowing communities to earn “Telecommuter Forward!” designation to promote expanded broadband access and in turn, grow jobs and allow communities to thrive.
One area in which we weren’t able to reach agreement was a comprehensive package of transportation investments. The longer we wait means the more expensive fixing our deteriorating roads and bridges will be.
Q: What DFL bills or movements did you back during the session?
A: The funding for Minnesota’s Health Care Access Fund, which allows low-income people and working families to access health care, was facing a sunset this year. Senate Republicans resisted extending this all session long and didn’t have an alternative to replace this critical funding. I’m proud that in our budget agreement, House DFLers prevailed in extending this funding. This isn’t a political win, but rather a win for Minnesotans whose access to health care was in dire jeopardy. We also enacted a strong package of strategies to tackle the opioid epidemic, funded through new fees on drug makers and distributors to hold them accountable for the crisis they helped create. The lobbying pressure from Big Pharma to stop these fees was intense, but the stories from Minnesotans impacted by these tragedies was pivotal in these solutions becoming law. New protections for seniors and vulnerable adults was another success, and these include licensure of assisted living facilities, new enforcement mechanisms, and the ability for residents to have a camera in their living space.
Q: How did Hibbing and other Iron Range cities fare this session? Did you work with Range legislators on anything in particular?
A: The Iron Range fared well this session and I’m thankful for the partnership of local leaders in making these successes possible. Local Government Aid and County Program Aid have been underfunded since draconian cuts in the early 2000s, and this year we came together to boost this funding on an ongoing basis. These critical programs allow communities like ours to provide the local public services residents count on without an overreliance on property taxes.
Communities like ours have significant mental health needs, and this session we moved forward with solutions such as school-linked mental health grants, expansion of Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics, and mental health coverage parity.
Our budget compromise appropriated $40 million to the state Border to Border Broadband Grant program. Fast, reliable internet access is critical to our success in Greater Minnesota and we must work together on long-term funding, so we can truly diversify our economy.
I authored and successfully delivered new funding for the U of M’s Natural Resources Research Institute to study next-generation iron products, water quality, emerging biofuels and other energy production from sources like perennial crops and forestry products. There’s great potential in this research and I hope we can do more to evaluate these renewable energy possibilities going forward. Next year, I’m hopeful we can come together and pass a public works bonding bill, and I’ll work hard to include key Iron Range priorities in it, including the Mine View in Hibbing, Floodwood’s wastewater plant, and Chisholm’s public safety facility.
After years of effort locally, my legislation to update the St. Louis County Civil Service statute became law, as well as a fix for the Central Iron Range sanitary sewer board.
Finally, in other good news, the House didn’t consider any legislation negatively impacting our ability to create quality, good-paying jobs through new mining opportunities.
Q: The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board is having a troubling time. What needs to be done to ensure IRRRB and others follow rules and regulations and improve?
A: The IRRRB is a unique state agency with a unique mission, and the loans and grants are vital toward our region’s economic success. Having said that, the old way of doing things isn’t good enough anymore. Constituents deserve accountability, transparency, and processes to be followed effectively. I’ll continue working to hold the agency to a high standard in this regard.
Q: What is your opinion of Cleveland Cliffs, Essar and Nashwauk mining project?
A: People of the Iron Range have received nothing but 10 years of lip service from Essar and I maintain my support for debarring them from conducting business in Minnesota. This is a valuable site and we need a company with both the immediate financial wherewithal and knowledge of mining necessary to keep the permitting process on track and get the site operational.
Q: Do you support the proposed copper-nickel mining projects from PolyMet and Twin Metals?
A: If science demonstrates that we’re able to mine precious metals safely while protecting our natural resources, this should be allowed to proceed without undue interference from political forces. PolyMet has emerged from a rigorous process lasting over a decade which should alleviate any environmental concerns, and it’s time to allow folks to get to work on that site. I am however cautious about Glencore having a majority share of the ownership, as their track record elsewhere is less than stellar. We must demand that if they are going to have operations in Minnesota, they meet all of our standards regarding financing, the environment, and worker safety.
Q: Though mining offers good-paying jobs, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Department statistics show that the industry makes up a small percentage of jobs in the state and on the Iron Range. What is your opinion on job diversification? What do we need to do on Iron Range cities to attract and retain more employers/employees, while marinating our healthcare and education jobs?
A: Since entering the legislature, diversifying our Iron Range economy has been one of my top priorities. Mining was, is, and will be a major part of both our heritage as well as an economic engine, but with the boom and bust nature of the industry, it’s imperative to have other opportunities for people to earn a living. Expanding reliable broadband service everywhere is perhaps the most important piece of this puzzle, which is necessary not just for businesses to succeed, but is increasingly important in education, in health care delivery, and in ordinary day-to-day living. My Telecommuter Forward! legislation is one tool to grow our economy, bringing jobs to where people are instead of making people move to follow the jobs. There’s so much our region has to offer, with strong communities, terrific rural character, and pristine natural resources that should be able to retain and attract families, but this is extremely difficult without broadband, which as far as we are in the 21st century, should be a fundamental part of our way of life.
Q: Legislators passed an opioid bill. That’s great. But the Iron Range is dealing with the reemergence of methamphetamine. How do we get a handle on meth? Also, we only have one residential treatment facility in Virginia. How do we get more facilities and more resources?
A: Not too long ago in one of our communities, classmates found a 14-year-old unresponsive. The cause was determined to be marijuana laced with fentanyl. Whether it be marijuana, opioids, meth, or any other drug, we must increase our efforts to reach adolescents before they start using these. Part of this is ensuring supportive environments, including the full-service community schools model, with wrap-around services like mental health and substance abuse. We certainly have to increase access to community-based mental health and substance abuse treatment. Drug courts have also been effective; throwing a drug user in behind bars disrupts their entire life, taking away any support network or financial wellbeing. When we steer people suffering from addiction toward treatment instead of incarceration, if they’re committed to turning things around, we can hold them accountable while ensuring a higher likelihood of being successful in recovery. When we’re committed to healthy families and healthy communities, we can prevent further drug abuse tragic overdoses.