Prospect of quick benefits for Iron Rangers hits snag

Published 10:07 am Friday, March 4, 2016

ST. PAUL — House Republicans continued their push Thursday to pair a business tax cut with any extension of unemployment benefits for laid-off Iron Range steelworkers, a potential blow to efforts to quickly extend the benefits when legislators return next week.

The House Job Growth & Energy Affordability Committee passed a bill extending unemployment benefits for Iron Range workers for 26 weeks but included language that would cut taxes for the employers who furnish the state’s unemployment trust fund that carries a $1.6 billion surplus.

The Iron Range in northeast Minnesota has seen mine closures and layoffs due to an unprecedented downturn in the global steel economy. Hundreds have exhausted their benefits and thousands have been laid off in the last year.

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For months, Gov. Mark Dayton pushed for a special session to extend unemployment benefits for out-of-work miners on the Iron Range, but abruptly dropped that push in February after conceding that time had run out. Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt had said he preferred not to return early and vowed to queue up fixes for Rangers in the first week of the session.

Now, it’s unclear how quickly legislators will be able to resolve their political differences when the Legislature returns on Tuesday.

On Thursday, Democrats in the House pleaded with Republicans to pass a “clean bill” that would extend unemployment benefits without the tax cuts. DFL legislators said they weren’t opposed to tax cuts but continued to argue that Republicans were “holding hostage” benefits for Iron Range workers in exchange for tax relief.