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Rep. Spencer Igo on housing, EMS, land transfer and school mascots

Outside shot of the building with a deep blue sky.
Heidi Holtan
The Minnesota State Capitol building in St. Paul.

Rep. Spencer Igo, R-Wabana Township, is in his second term at the Minnesota Legislature and serves as the Chair of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.

ST. PAUL – Rep. Spencer Igo, R-Wabana Township, said he is excited about his role as chair of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, especially as it relates to new initiatives addressing rural housing.

In a recent KAXE Morning Show interview, Igo said a focus on housing is good for the region.

“The best part about it is, it’s about taking down the silos in our region, right?” he said.

According to Igo, the impact is not just in his district, 7A, but throughout the Northland and the Iron Range.

“We’re forming these public and private partnerships when it comes to housing, to really serve one of our area’s biggest needs,” Igo said.

The pilot project from IRRR approved $5 million in proposals during the current budget year.

The largest housing development proposed is a market-rate workforce housing in Grand Rapids with a four-story, 132-unit apartment building. In Bovey, the Connor-Jasper Middle School will be renovated into a 20-unit apartment building.

Igo said this is a new road for IRRR, under the leadership of Commissioner Ida Rukavina.

“We’ve never done anything like this, and at the last board meeting, we started sending some of that money out the door to communities.”

Emergency services in rural areas

Spencer Igo headshot
Paul Battaglia
Rep. Spencer Igo.

A bill co-authored by Igo, HF 3992, provides aid to licensed ambulance service providers. Igo described it as one-time funding to stabilize emergency medical service carriers but said he’s also working on ways to fix reimbursement.

“That’s the biggest problem, when you do a ride and it’s covered by Medicare and Medicaid, that reimbursement isn’t actually covering the cost to run that ambulance,” he said. “The federal reimbursements aren’t there.”

The ambulance service can’t stay profitable in this model, Igo explained.

He described funding as a delicate balancing act.

“I think there’s going to be policy things that we can find inside the state and inside local government to try and make sure we retain that rural ambulance service,” he said.

The one-time funding is a short-term solution, and Igo is looking ahead to next year for longer-term solutions in the state and partnerships with the federal government. Igo said he has had conversations with U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber.

“He’s well aware of this issue,” Igo said.

Upper Red Lake land back proposal

Igo talked about concerns he’s heard from constituents recently. He said issues have surfaced about out-of-control prices and taxes, as well as hot-button issues like sanctuary states, anti-second amendment bills and the Red Lake land transfer proposal.

Igo explained fishing in Red Lake is a huge draw.

“There’s hundreds of constituents of mine that have family tradition and cabins and property,” he said.

SF 5080 is the policy bill introduced by Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, which relates to Upper Red Lake and Red Lake State Forest land transfer. Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis, introduced a companion House bill to change the border lines.

Opponents are concerned about the walleye fisheries and the two most popular public boat launches that would not be open to the public, which may affect tourism and other small businesses in the region, Igo said.

“Everyone’s just kind of scratching their head like, 'What the heck?' We’re building good relationships with our tribe, working together, you know?" he said. "The lake is coming back better than ever. The fish numbers are coming up. Why?”

Igo said he’s vehemently opposed to the land transfer, in part because the legislation did not come from Northern Minnesota.

“It came out of a small, very urban, metro district, and in Minneapolis, who really doesn’t have any ties to this issue,” he said.

Igo said he hopes for education that can provide better understanding. When asked if Red Lake officials should be at the table, Igo said, "It's hard to say."

“The bill was introduced very late in what is already a short session,” he said. “I think to open this stuff up and create almost, if you will, a wedge issue, again, it is really concerning.”

A bill to transfer land back to White Earth was tabled earlier in the session.

Grand Rapids Thunderhawk mascot

Igo grew up in Grand Rapids, so the debate over school mascots is near and dear to his heart.

“I am a Thunderhawk,” he said.

In 2023, the Minnesota Legislature passed a law to end the use of Native mascots in public schools. The law states that any name, symbol or image that depicts or refers to an American Indian Tribe, custom or tradition must have exemption by all 11 federally recognized tribal nations as well as the Tribal Nations Education Committee to use the mascot after Sept. 1, 2025.

The Grand Rapids Thunderhawk was not granted an exemption.

In 1995, Grand Rapids changed its mascot from the Indians to Thunderhawks. Grand Rapids Superintendent Matt Grose said residents were largely unaware of Chief Thunderhawk, an important figure in Hunkpapa Lakota history. He said the name was chosen from the most popular suggestions of thunder and hawk.

Unlike Grand Rapids, where the Lower Sioux Community, White Earth Reservation and the Tribal Nations Education Committee denied the exemption, the Warroad warrior mascot was approved by all 11 tribes. Warroad was once the largest Ojibwe village in Minnesota.

“I’m trying to have conversations with the Department of Education and with my colleagues down here at the Legislature and say, 'Hey, I think this was an unwanted side effect by your legislation and we need to act quickly to fix this,'” Igo said.

Changing a mascot, especially in Grand Rapids, a school district faced with significant budget cuts, could cost, at minimum, $1 million, according to Igo.

Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, introduced a bill in March 2024 to cover the costs of changing the Thunderhawk mascot in Grand Rapids. Other bills would address a similar issue in the Sleepy Eye, Benson and Esko school districts.

Igo said that one of the ideas going forward is partnering with the tribes closest to the school district, not all 11 tribal nations.

“A tribe down in southwestern Minnesota that there’s no relationship there between folks living in the Grand Rapids greater community, and that doesn’t necessarily put together for a recipe that’s going to result in a good solution,” Igo said.

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Heidi Holtan is KAXE's Director of Content and Public Affairs where she manages producers and is the local host of Morning Edition from NPR. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North.