Mayo puts some lawmakers in awkward position

Tom West, West Words
Tom West, West Words

In an unusual move, the Mayo Clinic gave a coronary to some legislators in January, when it came to the state capitol to ask for $500 million.

The lawmakers, who hadn’t gotten down to serious business yet, were still congratulating themselves on removing a 20-year headache from their agenda by funding a new stadium for the Vikings last year, and were somewhat taken aback.

It was one thing to finance the stadium, which the beer-drinking crowd favored, but doctors are supposed to be wealthy, and not in need of government hand-outs. (Never mind that under Obamacare, health care eventually will become nothing but one big government hand-out.)

However, there is one key difference between the Vikings and Mayo. The Vikings contribute to the deterioration of the human body, both through the mangling of joints and excessive contusions delivered and received by their employees, and through the excessive alcohol consumed by some of the  team’s patrons.

Mayo, on the other hand, has been devoted for more than a century to alleviating physical suffering  and extending human life.

During their push for a new stadium, the Vikings, or at least some of their more ardent supporters, made veiled threats the team would follow the Lakers to L.A. The NFL, of course, would like a team in the second largest TV market in the land, but they hated giving up the 15th largest, too. With 32 teams, the NFL naturally wants all the big markets.

Mayo was a little more circumspect in its approach. It said it would never leave Rochester, home to Will and Charles Mayo, but emphasized if the state doesn’t pony up, it will grow elsewhere. This left the lawmakers with a certain tightening in their chests.

Except for government, our current batch of state lawmakers does not know how to grow anything.

Mayo, however, has 33,500 employees in Minnesota including 2,062 physicians and scientists. It also has 5,057 employees in Florida and 5,524 in Arizona.

It could leave behind a five doctor outpost to handle runny noses and ear infections, and  ostensibly “stay in Minnesota.”

Meanwhile, depending on how big a bribe  the Floridians or Arizonans offered them, it could take its MRIs and go some place where they play golf all year long.

The good doctors claim that they want to stay. They want to spend $3.5 billion of their own money over the next couple of decades on modernizing the clinic. That isn’t chump change. They want to add 25,000 jobs. Those aren’t chump jobs.

Their complaint is that Rochester is a small town, and, if they are to remain one of a handful of world-class medical facilities in an age when all health care will be based on government reimbursement rates, they will need some extra support. Only a few medical centers like Mayo have reputations sterling enough to attract grand potentates and world-famous celebrities from around the globe.

Minnesotans have to admit, it’s kind of reassuring to know those folks are in your backyard in the off chance you may need them.

Mayo is asking for the half billion to pay for “infrastructure,” which has not quite been defined yet. That’s just slightly more than the state pledged to the Vikings. It’s going to use the state’s largesse, plus $2.1 billion in private investment, to improve the amenities in Rochester. The city of Rochester and Olmsted County would go broke if they tried to do the project alone.

Those improvements remain undefined. Maybe they are thinking about having a Camp Snoopy South. If I had just finished a chemo treatment, I’m not sure I’d be ready to go on an amusement ride, but then patients often bring families with them. Who knows, maybe it will improve outcomes if the kids aren’t fidgeting around the ICU saying, “There’s nothing to do here.”

State Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, thinks Rochester needs to develop the area around the clinic the way Duluth developed an old ammunition dump into Canal Park. It might take more than $6 billion to build something as attractive as Lake Superior, but when it comes to amenities, $2.6 billion should buy enough to keep the kids from jumping on the bed.

Here’s a better idea for Bakk. He’s one of about 10 legislators who sits on the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB). While there seems to be a consensus to do “something” for Mayo, some lawmakers are making the same argument as they did about the Vikings.: If we give them this money, where will it all stop? In particular, the powerful House Tax Committee Chair Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, has voiced opposition.

Bakk needs to take her aside and explain how awkward it would be for someone representing the former Camp Snoopy (which has enjoyed beneficial treatment from the government) as well as those lawmakers on the IRRRB,  which spends about $15 million a year of taconite tonnage taxes on infrastructure improvements, to explain how amusement parks and repairing the roof of the West Bohemian Fraternity Union Hall in the Meadowlands takes precedence over retaining a world-class medical center.

It’s bad economic policy to play favorites; it’s better to be a low-tax state that works as hard as it can to welcome new business. But Minnesota is a high-tax state, and our government picks winners and losers all the time. As long as that situation exists, then the Legislature better stay in the game, at least with an outfit as prestigious as Mayo.


Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at [email protected]