The legislation passed by the House directs University of Minnesota researchers to study lung disease among taconite workers.
The focus will be the asbestos-related cancer known as mesothelioma. There's a high rate of the cancer among men living in the Iron Range region.
The bill's author, Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said the study will last three years. "That will look at a list of 70,000 miners who just don't live on Minnesota's Iron Range, but live all over this state, probably in every district on this House floor, to try to once and for all get to the bottom of this disease," Rukavina said.
Under the bill, the bulk of the $4.9 million needed for the study would come from the surplus in a state workers compensation fund.
Officials with the state Department of Labor and Industry warned lawmakers that they would assess employers throughout Minnesota to replenish the fund if it's tapped for the health study.
Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, proposed using money from the Taconite Area Environmental Protection Fund. McNamara argued unsuccessfully that the Iron Range region and the taconite industry should pay the cost of the study, not the entire state.
"Members on the other side of the aisle, you're going to vote to tax the snot out of everybody else and let the Iron Range skate, and they're making money hand over fist. We're either in a recession or on the verge of a recession throughout the state except for one spot, the Iron Range," McNamara said.
Iron Range legislators took offense at suggestions that the their constituents and local property taxes should pay for the study.
House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said the taconite industry might eventually have to pay, but not until researchers pinpoint the link to mesothelioma. "We don't know where it came from yet. That's the point. If the mines are responsible for this, you're damn right they're going to pay," Sertich said. "But we don't have answers yet, and that's the most frustrating thing about this, Representative McNamara. People have died and we want answers. You want a way out."
Gov. Tim Pawlenty also wants the study paid for without the workers compensation money.
In a letter to Rep. Rukavina, Pawlenty suggested the Taconite Economic Development Fund as another possible funding source. The Republican governor also warned he will likely veto the bill in its current form.