Two Iron Range senators made emotional pleas Thursday to extend unemployment benefits for thousands of men and women who have lost jobs due to a steel price crisis, and senators responded by passing the legislation 62-3.
“I wish we weren’t here with this bill,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said because it means his Iron Range is in trouble.
Sen. David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, said the bill he sponsored is the most important of his 24-year legislative career because it involves families who are hurting.
“The future of the Iron Range is at stake here,” Tomassoni said.
His bill would extend unemployment benefits to people laid off from taconite mines and related businesses in northeastern Minnesota.
Tomassoni said unemployment payments for 2,000 people in the mining industry will end soon or already have ended. Another 4,700 Iron Rangers have been laid off, he said, and many will need extended benefits, too.
The issue is that China is producing more steel than it needs, and is selling some of it in the United States at greatly reduced prices. China produces enough excess steel to replace all steel made in the United States.
Taconite mined on the Range is turned into steel, but with most American steel plants closed, mines also are closed either permanently or temporarily.
“When the steel industry gets a hiccup, the Iron Range gets the flu,” Tomassoni said. “We certainly have the flu this time.”
The Senate action came during the second floor session of the year. On Tuesday, the first day of the 2016 session, the House could not pass a benefit extension bill that incorporated changes in a trust fund that provides money for unemployment insurance payments.
The House Ways and Means Committee is to discuss the unemployment issue Monday.
Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, on Thursday introduced the same measure representatives debated Tuesday. His amendment failed 39-26.
Dahms’ amendment would have refunded $272 million from the trust fund to businesses and lowered the rates they pay to keep the fund going. The senator said the changes would help create jobs, while Democrats called it a business tax cut.
“I think it would be a good time … for our businesses to have an opportunity to get their money back so they can expand and hire employees,” Dahms said.
Democrats said that legislators have not linked emergency relief bills to other issues in the past and it should not happen with the Iron Range aid.
“It really should go through the committee process,” Sen. Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said, instead of first appearing on the floor of the Senate.
In his Wednesday night State of the State speech, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton promised to work with Republicans on the trust fund changes if they would immediately agree to extend unemployment benefits.
Bakk said that he might support the changes, but the issue first should be vetted by committees. The benefit extension provision was discussed and passed by the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.
Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, told his colleagues that his Iron Range background showed him that help is needed, much like the state helped his area last year when bird flu killed poultry.
“We have to prop up that industry, which is now failing,” Newman said of the taconite industry.
He added: “When the mines close, there is no economic activity.”
Stores have been closing on the Iron Range as mines are shuttered.
Sen. Roger Reinert, D-Duluth, said the impact extends beyond the Range.
“When things are not going well on the Range, they are not going well in my community,” Reinert said.
Bakk said he remains optimistic.
“We have natural resources,” Bakk said. “We are going to survive … but we just need a little bridge so we can figure it out.”