A recent analysis of state economic development funding by the Star Tribune showed more money per capita in the last five years has gone to DFL Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk’s district than any other.
The report says Bakk’s district won more than $2.7 million from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, including $300,000 for the Two Harbors Performing Arts Center; $250,000 for water and sewer improvements in Silver Bay; and $600,000 for infrastructure needed to rebuild Zup’s, a grocery store that burned down in Bakk’s hometown of Cook.
His district spans a wide stretch of rural Minnesota near the Arrowhead Region, covering Ely, Grand Marais and International Falls. The district received nearly $73 per person annually in IRRRB grants since 2015. The next highest amount went to Sen. David Tomassoni’s district at $55 per person in Hibbing, the Quad Cities and the East Range. Sen. Justin Eichorn’s district in Grand Rapids has received about $31 per person.
“It’s not divided up by House or Senate district,” Bakk told the Star Tribune. “Communities with good, sound projects and that leverage other money will be successful” in their grant applications.
Under the agency structure, grants are scored independently by three IRRRB staff. Commissioner Mark Phillips then chooses the projects and presents them to the board of nine lawmakers from the region who serve in an advisory-only role.
The agency has changed its methods after a 2016 legislative audit found inadequate oversight and evaluation of IRRRB loans and grants. The changes have also helped IRRRB track the effectiveness of the spending once it’s handed out, including annual reports on whether the grants are meeting goals.
“I think we’ve made tremendous progress, and our employees are proud of where we are,” Phillips told the Star Tribune.
State Rep. Julie Sandstede was critical of the spending, telling the newspaper she wouldn't speculate on if close ties between Bakk and Phillips influenced funding, but said the agency had a lack of transparency and a boys’ club undertone. Phillips said the culture at the agency has changed since the 1970s.
“It’s a pretty transparent, strict process,” he said.
The IRRRB has come under fire this year after the fast-track hiring and resignation of Joe Radinovich — a DFL political operative, who also served as a state representative and was a candidate for the 8th Congressional District in 2016 — to a civil service job that paid $100,000. Last week, the Star Tribune reported that the agency gave a buyout worth $166,000 to senior employee Brian Hiti for early retirement and then hired him back.