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Pawlenty threatens cancer study veto

ST. PAUL - Minnesota state representatives voted 88-45 Thursday to fund an Iron Range cancer study, but Gov. Tim Pawlenty threatens to veto the bill because it would take money from a fund filled by most Minnesota businesses.

Taking money from a workers' compensation fund, as Rep. Tom Rukavina's bill suggests, would cost the state's businesses, Pawlenty said in a letter delivered to lawmakers before they voted to support the study.

"The bill in its current form will likely be vetoed," Pawlenty wrote.

Most House Republicans agreed and opposed Rukavina's bill.

Iron Range representatives said the entire state needs to pay for the study, not only northeastern Minnesota's Iron Range.

"This is a study of statewide significance which would be funded with state dollars," Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, said. "Please don't punish us."

The debate arose when Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, offered an amendment to take money from an Iron Range fund.

"You are going to vote to tax the snot out of everyone else and let the Iron Range skate," McNamara said, adding that the study would cost $20 for every employee covered by the state's workers' compensation program.

Lawmakers voted 81-53 to reject McNamara's attempt to switch funding sources. That vote followed an emotional debate that included House Majority Leader Tony Sertich talking about his family and friends.

Some know they have "death sentences," the Chisholm Democrat said. "They want to know where it comes from. They want answers."

Almost five dozen mesothelioma deaths have been reported in northeastern Minnesota. The rare cancer often is blamed on asbestos; the university study is to determine why deaths are occurring on the Range.

Sertich promised that if taconite mines were contributing to the problem, he will demand they will pay.

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said his mother died of the disease a decade ago, adding "it is like being smothered to death."

"This will try to put to rest once and for all if there are health hazards from taconite mining in northeast Minnesota," Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said of the study.

"We ought to do this study, and the state ought to fund the cost of this study," Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said. "But I have some questions about how you are proposing to pay for this."

As Rukavina urged fellow representatives to support his bill, Sen. David Tomassoni sat at his desk in the Senate chamber watching the House debate on his computer.

Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said he will take Rukavina's bill and bring it up for a Senate vote instead of passing a separate version. He also favors using the workers' compensation fund to pay for the studies.

Tomassoni held a state document explaining the purposes for the fund, including for "safety and health programs to prevent injuries and illnesses that may result from exposure to hazardous workplace conditions and work practices."

The senator said using the workers' compensation fund makes sense because the state faces a general fund deficit, and the mesothelioma problem needs to be resolved.

"You need to get it done and this is a way to do it," Tomassoni said.

State Capitol reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.