Easter Gift For Iron Rangers: Unemployment Extension

Minnesota state Rep. Jason Metsa of Virginia holds Leonard, the 21-month-old son of Rep. Carly Melin of Hibbing, during Thursday, March 24, 2016 debate on unemployment benefits for Iron Range workers. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)
Minnesota state Rep. Jason Metsa of Virginia holds Leonard, the 21-month-old son of Rep. Carly Melin of Hibbing, during Thursday, March 24, 2016 debate on unemployment benefits for Iron Range workers. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Easter will be a bit happier for laid-off Iron Range workers.

The Minnesota Legislature recessed for a short Easter break Thursday after extending unemployment benefits 26 weeks for more than 2,700 rangers who have exhausted their original 26 weeks of payments. Lawmakers also approved legislation to reform a trust fund that provides money for unemployment benefits.

“It’s a flat-out blessing,” Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aikin, said. “We didn’t want to go home to celebrate Easter without passing this.”

Democratic Iron Range representatives issued a simple statement: “It’s about time.”

Unemployment benefits and the trust fund reform issue have been debated far more than any other issue so far this legislative session, which began March 8.

The bills, which Gov. Mark Dayton signed less than an hour after the House gave them final passage, had split Democrats and Republicans since November, when the governor suggested a special legislative session to provide relief.

Some Iron Rangers have been out of work for a year as taconite mines temporarily and permanently closed due to a national steel crisis. The latest figures show more than 2,700 have exhausted their benefits, and almost 7,000 have been laid off.

Rep. Tom Anzelc, D-Balsam Township, said that at least the House and Senate worked together, after battling for weeks, “unlike what happens in Washington, D.C.”

However, he said, the issue should not have dragged on so long. “Both sides are to blame.”

Rep. Carly Melin, D-Hibbing, said many miners in her district have been off work longer than elsewhere, and unlike other mines there is no sign so far that they will return soon.

“They have kinda been waiting for this,” Melin said.

Some miners have taken jobs in Duluth, she said, but not many left the area.

“I’m glad we took the political football off the field,” added Rep. Jason Metsa, D-Virginia.

The House action came after a day of Dayton urging action, and even postponing a family trip to San Francisco in hopes he could sign the bills, if they passed, Thursday night.

The House passed the reform bill 129-1 with little discussion. The Senate passed it 59-0 earlier Thursday.

Unemployment benefits were extended on a 113-17 vote by the House, also with almost no discussion. Senators last week passed it overwhelmingly.

The Iron Range legislative delegation has been frustrated because House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, had promised the unemployment extension would pass the first week of session. When the session started, House Republicans insisted that the benefit extension and trust fund reform must be in the same bill; Democrats wanted legislative committees to look at the reform issue before taking up that legislation.

Thursday’s 59-0 Senate vote on the refund plan came on legislation Sen. Lyle Koenen, D-Clara City, authored from proposals that came from Iron Range legislators.

The plan limits how much the trust fund may contain, and refunds $258 million to businesses.

The unemployment insurance fund has $1.6 billion now and Koenen said it is expected to grow to $1.8 billion by year’s end. That is more than needed, he said.

“If it is determined that the trust fund balance is in excess … a tax credit will be provided to employers in the following calendar year,” Koenen said.

The benefit extension bill is retroactive, so workers already laid off will receive benefits. It also will apply to future Iron Range layoffs.

Just before Koenen’s legislation passed, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, urged House leaders to take up the bills.

“It would send a strong message to the public that this is a Legislature that works,” Bakk said.

After signing the bill, Dayton said: “I salute the Senate majority leader, Tom Bakk, for his heroic efforts to pass this legislation.”

A year ago, Bakk and Dayton had a public falling out.

Dayton said Thursday’s action could signal a good legislative session, which ends May 23.

“I thank Speaker Daudt for resolving with Sen. Bakk this legislative impasse,” Dayton said. “I hope today’s results will show the way to the resolution of future legislative differences.”

Daudt blamed Democrats for delaying passage of the bills.

Bakk said federal help is needed to fix the miners’ issues.

“The looming challenge remains, getting meaningful tariffs on unfairly traded foreign steel.” Bakk said. “To that end the Iron Range delegation met with Sen. Al Franken this week. I am grateful that he reinforced his support for curbing steel-dumping and I deeply appreciate his and the heroic efforts of Congressman (Rick) Nolan on behalf of the Iron Range in Washington, D.C.”