It’s one of those rare cases at the Capitol when leaders from both political parties are on the same side of an issue: Unemployment benefits should be extended 26 weeks to help some of the thousands of miners currently out of work on Minnesota’s Iron Range — and it should be done as soon as possible.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and top legislative leaders in the House and Senate have agreed about that for weeks, and said they would address it in the first week of session, which kicked off March 8.
It wasn’t the only point of agreement early on in this year’s session: Republicans and Democrats also thought something should be done this year for Minnesota companies that contribute to the state’s $1.6 billion unemployment insurance trust fund, likely in the form of a one-time, $258 million refund.
And yet, almost three weeks into the session, legislators have spent hours arguing over these two issues, with little to show for it. On two seemingly settled issues, they’ve settled nothing.
“I am livid we’re here today arguing about this,” said a frustrated Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, the author of the bill to extend unemployment benefits to miners, many of whom live in his district.
For many, the continuing debate on unemployment benefits is emblematic of the 2016 session, a 10-week sprint during which a divided Legislature needs to agree on how to spend a $900 million budget surplus and put together a massive bonding bill — two jobs made more difficult by the fact that all 201 legislative seats are on the ballot this fall.
So far, Republicans and Democrats can’t even agree about things they agree on.
A tough road ahead
At the heart of the problem is the process: Republicans in control of the House want to link the unemployment benefits for miners to an unemployment insurance rebate for companies, packaging the two issues in one bill. Democrats don’t. Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt casts the move as a time-saving measure in the unusually short, 10-week session, but Democrats in the Senate say it’s unprecedented to tie the two issues together.
Collectively, the House and Senate have spent hours debating whether the bills should be linked, prompting many legislators to wonder from the chamber floors how much the public cares about any of it. “I don’t think anyone gives a rip whether there are one or two bills,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, the author of the House bill that links both proposals together. His bill passed off the House floor last week on a 104-25 vote.
It’s not the only sign of that the rest of the session may be a tough slog. This week, legislators took a small step toward complying with the federal Real ID Act, which aims to combat terrorism by requiring citizens to have enhanced security measures on their driver’s license in order to board an airplane.
The Senate overwhelmingly passed a measure Tuesday that lifts a 2009 gag order on the state Department of Public Safety that has prevented department officials from communicating with the federal government and starting to plan for implementation of the new IDs. The House could do the same as soon as Thursday. But the proposal stops short of implementation, requiring approval from the full Legislature of any final plan.
It’s another issue that Democrats and Republicans said they wanted to tackle early in the session, even if there are still major concerns from some legislators over the federal government collecting Minnesota driver’s license data. What’s more, a previous deadline to comply with the Real ID Act earlier this year was pushed back until 2018, relieving some pressure to act immediately.
That could make finding a plan that satisfies both parties this year challenging. Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said he wasn’t sure if he would vote to conform with the federal requirements, calling the act a “chilling combination of personal data access and perhaps endless surveillance opportunities either by private corporations or government.”
“Sometimes you wonder,” Limmer said, “is that little plastic card going to protect us from terrorism?”
What divided government looks like
Complicating things further, legislators will head off Thursday evening for a four-day Easter break, returning to their work on Tuesday.
Some lawmakers are hoping progress can be made on the unemployment benefits before the recess. On Wednesday, The Senate Tax Committee passed its own version of a $258 million unemployment insurance refund for businesses, putting it on the fast track to pass on the Senate floor on Thursday.
DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said he’d like the House to suspend its rules and take up the bill later in the day and send it off to the governor. “I’m willing to do the business tax cuts first,” Bakk said Wednesday, suggesting that Republicans may not trust Democrats to pass the unemployment insurance refund on their own.
“I’ve given my word,” Bakk said. “The governor’s given his word.”
For his part, Dayton expressed frustration Wednesday that nothing has happened yet for miners on the Iron Range. He said Republicans were holding the benefits “hostage” in order to get the refund for businesses. “It’s just wrong and it’s heartless,” Dayton said in a press conference Wednesday.
He plans to delay a trip to California Thursday incase legislators send him an unemployment benefit bill to sign.
But the governor is not willing to write off the 2016 session just yet, noting that proposals always take more time in the Capitol than expected. He repeated a line he’s said all year: Minnesotans wanted divided government, and this is what it looks like in action. “Everybody’s up for re-election but me,” said Dayton. “I’m not surprised it’s politically charged.”