With a resume that already included union miner, laid-off union miner, community organizer, president or board member of the Laurentian Chamber of Commerce, Jobs for Minnesotans and the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, city councilor and mayor of Aurora, Dave Lislegard was a natural fit for the House 6B seat.
When former Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, launched a bid for the 8th Congressional District last year, that opportunity finally opened up. Finally, because incumbents on the Iron Range enjoy a certain sense of job security as pro-mining moderate Democrats that pull large chunks of union votes.
Tom Rukavina held the seat for more than 20 years before retiring and opening the seat for Metsa. Current State Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, was elected to the House in 1992 before being elected to the Senate in 2000, where he’s been ever since.
Lislegard recently completed his first term in the House — a successful one by many measures for the freshman and the region — in which he emerged as one of the state’s most effective legislators and leaders.
While the bills authored and co-authored by Lislegard brought millions more in local government funding to Greater Minnesota and the Range, he was at the forefront of those efforts as vice chair of the powerful House Tax Committee, an appointment made by DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman.
Aside from the legislation, Lislegard said he was particularly proud of mining not being a political football in the state government in 2019. No meaningful mining bills or hearings reached the floor of the House or Senate, a combination of DFL leadership striking a better balance between progressive and rural Democrats, but also the relationship built between Lislegard and Hortman that allowed many of the Range legislative priorities to remain in the final tax bill.
“Our House DFL leadership has avoided using these issues as a wedge to divide us,” Lislegard said. “I’m consistently sharing our story about how important mining is not just to our past, but how we can all prosper now and in the future, and I think this work has resulted in allowing our processes to play out properly.”
After more than a decade on the Aurora City Council and a short stint as mayor before being elected to the Legislature, St. Paul presented a change of pace for the new lawmaker.
Rather than lobbying a councilor or two to pass ordinances and resolutions, the state level requires more compromise among parties, bills and chambers.
In Minnesota, the only divided state government in the nation, compromise was even more crucial to getting things done. Walz, Hortman and Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka hammered out a budget deal without any vetoes to major legislation as in the past.
The pace of action, Lislegard said, was also a big change from the city level which requires prepwork every couple works.
In the Legislature, lawmakers operate on a five month calendar to complete all the state’s work for the year, which includes floor and committee agendas everyday. In that five-month span, with a little overtime this year, Republicans and Democrats passed a biennial budget and bills broadly covering taxes, the environment, education, transportation, health care and more.
“It was a whole new ballgame, but when I came down to the Capitol, I made a commitment to put people before politics,” Lislegard said. “In a divided government, we have a lot of different ideas on how to advance our state, but nothing can get done unless we compromise.”
A successful session
The 2019 legislative session turned into a win for the Iron Range, largely in part to bills fronted by Lislegard and members of the Iron Range delegation.
Among the biggest bills passed was an increase in Local Government Aid, in which Lislegard was the chief author, and was a top priority of Walz and DFL leadership. Coupled with an increase in County Program Aid, the Legislature helped fund city services and infrastructure, which in areas like the Iron Range, largely depend on property taxes beyond current levels of state funding.
LGA was cut in 2002 by former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the 2019 Legislature restored those levels by adding $50 million in funding for local entities.
“This was a really good session for the Range,” Lislegard said. “Only through working closely with engaged community leaders were we able to get so many important items across the finish line.”
Under the CPA increase, St. Louis County can expect to receive $13.6 million in 2020, an increase of more than $1.3 million from 2019. Cities receiving LGA funding will see a total increase of $631,180 (5.47%) with the breakdown is as follows for the House 6B district:
• Aurora: $16,150 (2.49%)
• Biwabik: $4,558 (1.92%)
• Eveleth: $140,515 (5.28%)
• Gilbert: $12,969 (1.82%)
• Hoyt Lakes: $14,662 (3.62%)
• Mountain Iron: $36,417 (2.73%)
• Tower: $5,758 (6.23%)
• Virginia: $399,256 (7.49%)
Under the increase to Taconite Municipal Aid, also chief authored by Lislegard, cities can see total numbers of $424,000 in 2021, $422,000 in 2022 and $474,000 in 2023.
Rukavina bridge funding
With Rukavina’s death looming over the opening days of the session, Lislegard and House Transportation Chair Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, eventually filed a bill to name the Highway 53 bridge connecting Virginia and Eveleth after Rukavina. They tied the $5.4 million funding gap associated with the bridge to the bill.
The bridge will officially be named the “Tom Rukavina Memorial Bridge” to honor the legendary lawmaker.
The $5.4 million will be paid out to the city of Virginia in 2021, but fills a void on the city’s books left by the state during construction of the Highway 53 bridge.
The gap was created when the state elected to hire Nebraska-based construction company Kiewit as the primary contractor for the bridge project and costs to run utility lines along the structure exceeded projections. Virginia was forced to take out a loan and pay Kiewit in order for the company to complete the work.
Former Gov. Mark Dayton said the funding would be provided to make the city whole, but he ultimately vetoed the tax bill last session.
Virginia Mayor Larry Cuffe Jr. said the city will have to adjust its budget and levy until the payment is made, and that they’re still operating on a thin budget margin, but finalizing the funding was a success for the session.
“It’s really a win,” he said. “We need the money and it should have been allocated. It shouldn't have been this complicated of a process. With the increases in the budget with LGA and Taconite Municipal Aid, the city will get a significant chunk of money to help us bridge the gap of the $5.4 million.”
Through the tax bill and the work of Lislegard and the Range delegation, Virginia was also awarded a 1% sales tax for the Miners Memorial Building, the back end of a ballot measure passed by Virginia voters last November, which sent the tax to the Legislature for approval.
Cuffe said planning for the new Miners Memorial project is ongoing in the design and build phase, which is expanding city ownership of the property for parking, public-private partnerships and a potential hotel and restaurant. The city is still meeting with user groups and expects the tax will be in place by January 2020, with construction beginning that spring.
“I’m extremely grateful for the mayors, civic leaders, and regular citizens, some of who made multiple trips down to the Capitol, to advocate for our region,” Lislegard said of the local support for the measures.
Other legislative efforts
The budget includes increased funding for education, with an increase of 2% per-pupil on the current formula for each of the next two years. That was a priority of Walz, who wants to lessen districts’ reliance on bond referendums to afford salaries and health care increases. The education bill also includes funding to protect pre-kindergarten opportunities for 4,000 students and $90 million to address the federal government’s failure to properly fund special education.
“Big Pharma” was accountable through new fees, and new investments were made in treatment, recovery and prevention strategies, while also delivering funding to counties for the significant public safety resources this epidemic has required.
“I’m also proud our budget requires mental health coverage parity,” Lislegard said. “Too often, insurance companies have treated mental health and substance abuse disorders separate from other health care.”
Along with increasing the Working Family Tax Credit and the first income tax cut in almost 20 years, the Legislature also cut taxes on Social Security and small businesses. A $40 million investment in broadband over the next two years was approved to bridge the technology gap between the metro and Greater Minnesota.
Lislegard also helped secure$1.9 million for the Quad Cities ATV Club Trail, an extension on funding availability for the Mesabi Trail, $550,000 for a trail around the historic Bailey’s Lake in Virginia from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, expanded ATV training certification for Minnesota children, removal of the prohibition on ATV snorkels, a special provision to provide some aid to the city of Iron, changes in regulations to well boring, and additional resources to stop the spread of emerald ash borer.