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Miner achievement: Legislature extends unemployment benefits for Iron Range workers

Courtesy of the Office of Gov. Mark Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton signed the unemployment benefits bill Thursday as northern Minnesota lawmakers looked on.

After months of negotiations and debate, legislators sent a bill to Gov. Mark Dayton Thursday to extend unemployment benefits for 26 weeks to out-of-work miners on the Iron Range.

Legislators also passed a separate measure to give businesses that contribute to the state’s $1.6 billion unemployment insurance trust fund a one-time, $258 million refund. Dayton signed both bills Thursday evening, before he and legislators departed for a four-day Easter break.

The debate over the measures consumed the Capitol for months leading up this year’s legislative session, with Dayton at one point in November asking lawmakers to agree to a one-day special session to deal with the benefit extensions. The governor and Republicans in the House couldn’t agree, however, and the wrangling continued after the Legislature officially opened on March 8. The issue took weeks to work through, despite the fact that both Democrats and Republicans supported the benefit extension.

Republicans, however, wanted to link the unemployment issue to the insurance refund and deal with them in one bill. Democrats in the Senate pushed to deal with the issues in separate bills. The latter happened Thursday, after Senate Democrats moved their own version of the insurance refund on a unanimous vote and sent it over the House.

Despite his initial resistance to vote on the bills separately, Republican Speaker Kurt Daudt agreed to take up the proposals Thursday after several phone conversations with Dayton. House members voted 129-1 to give businesses the one-time credit from the unemployment insurance refund.

The House then took up the unemployment benefits proposal. After the 113-17 vote in favor of the $29 million bill to extend the benefits, the body’s DFL Iron Range delegation issued what may be the shortest political statement in the history of the Minnesota Legislature: “It’s about time.”

“Unemployed Iron Range workers can breathe a small sigh of relief; help is on the way,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said in a separate statement. “I am very pleased we were able to provide this much-needed but short-term relief for families, especially ahead of a holiday.” 

There was last-minute opposition to the Republican version of the bill over language that declared support for mining in Minnesota. Some Senate Democrats opposed the language because of what it could mean for controversial mining projects like PolyMet and Twin Metals, which haven’t been cleared for operation yet.

"Relief is on the way to Iron Range workers and small businesses across the state of Minnesota," said Daudt said. "I’m disappointed Democrats delayed these bills over a small part of the bill that stated support for mining in Minnesota. Ultimately, House Republicans provided the leadership necessary to do what was right for Minnesotans today."

The Department of Employment and Economic Development said officials will begin contacting affected mine workers early next week.

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Comments (7)

A non-political, sincere question:

What is the rationale for extending unemployment benefits to these particular people that does not apply to other unemployed people (or to everyone generally: why not give everyone in the state a tax rebate in the equivalent amount)? Is it just pandering to Iron Range folks, or is there a factual/policy justification? Again, I'm not asking tendentiously, I just haven't seen any rationale offered or explained.

It seems that if you're toward the left, you think that we should collectively provide for a cushion to anyone who loses their job through not fault of their own, and if you're toward the right, the market is the market and if you lose your job, tough luck and go find another one. I'm not sure of the rationale for singling out certain unemployed for greater social benefits.

And just an unrelated coda: interesting how the compromise always seems to involve one side getting to put its hands into our wallets for a favored constituency so long as the other side may, also.

Different circumstances

It is more difficult for those miners to find employment elsewhere compared to workers in other parts of the state for a number of reasons

1) Mining skills don't necessarily translate to other positions in other industries
2) Not as many other jobs in the region compared to (for example) the Twin Cities or Rochester. People in that region typically have to move to find work and the legislators are hoping the miners are still there if demand for iron ore comes back or if the other big mine projects are approved. The minerals are still there.
3) North Dakota oil drilling went bust at the same time. This makes moving to find other mining related jobs more difficult.

Not to mention the pay

Related to point #1: Not easy to find ANY "regular old blue collar" 40-hour per week job that pays $75,000 to $80,000 and up in this or any other state.

Republicans have been working on that one for decades (like possessed beavers): Too little left over for execs, upper-management and shareholders if productivity gains are shared with the people that actually help create them (with their hands).

Thank you, Dan. Those reasons make sense, as the facts are.

From a policy perspective, though, one then would have to conclude that the extended unemployment is a public subsidy to the mining concerns - preserving a trained and waiting (captive, even) labor base for whenever they should wish to recommence their operations - and serving to maintain, as well, an artificial constituency to press for mining activity that otherwise may not be in the overall public interest. This policy choice also raises the question of whether benefits then continue to be extended indefinitely and, if not, when do they cease.

One might suggest that as a better public policy choice, the same funds (or more) be used to assist diversification of the regional/local economies and retrain folks.

I'm not deeply knowledgeable on the economic/historical/cultural subject matter, but that's my very superficial thought.

They are spending money on diversification of the economy

The legacy of the IRRRB is worth several articles and has generated a lot of controversy. I think some of the proposed rural broadband spending will help the area as well.

Ultimately, mining becomes less and less interesting as an employer as the level of automation increases. It now takes orders of magnitude fewer people to extract minerals than it did in 1900 or even 1950.

A productive way to spend money and employ some of those workers would be to clean up the tailings basin at the MinnTac mine in Mountain Iron.

Had to look it up . . .

I don't disagree with anything you've said so far. Your last two paragraphs made me think about 1,000 things and say to myself, "Now THERE'S a loaded topic!"

But that made me think I should look up the definition which I did:

"A 'loaded' question (or topic) is one that forces an undesirable response, and is therefore generally unanswered. 'Loaded' literally refers to placing explosives on something, so one must tread carefully around a loaded question so as not to detonate it."

That's kind of what I suspected and although the last half of that fits perfectly, the "force an undesirable response" is NOT the idea. To me it's a topic that is so complex, deep, wide and "locally controversial" (where local means Minnesota) that it's like a collection of Russian Doll collections in which each doll is not only packed with another doll, but gun powder too.

Hard to recommend "starting points," but if you're interested in such things there was an article in last week's StarTribune that sketched the Legislative Auditor's report on their look at the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (the IRRRB), an organization set up decades ago to "to assist diversification of the regional/local economies."

"Harsh audit questions Iron Range agency's accountability, constitutionality"
www.startribune.com/audit-questions-iron-range-agency-s-accountability-s...

Right after that (or maybe even before), I'd recommend taking a look at some of the perspectives on that organization Steve Timmer has put together at left.mn (interesting and "fun" reading):

"Governance in the Dismal Swamp"
http://left.mn/2015/06/governance-in-the-dismal-swamp/

"The Separation of Powers"
http://left.mn/2015/06/the-separation-of-powers/

"It’s a giant money suckhole" (his response to the Auditor's report)
http://left.mn/2016/03/its-a-giant-money-suckhole/

"Nobody wants to talk about the good things it does"
http://left.mn/2016/03/nobody-wants-to-talk-about-the-good-things-it-does/

He's written some other things on the topic, but that's more than enough to give you the drift of his take on the IRRRB.

Another person who has interesting perspectives on the Iron Range situation is Aaron Brown of www.minnesotabrown.com. They're interesting because he's lived on the Range all his life and is a levelheaded articulate guy who always emphasizes the need to figure out and work toward some kind of balance between mining and diversification. And when it comes to the "loaded topic" thing, he also needs to be sure to "tread lightly" enough while being honest for the simple reason that "the fabric of his life" is pure Iron Range.

He's constantly referencing related things, but this link leads to his take on the Legislative Auditor's report:

"Report details serious problems at IRRRB"
http://minnesotabrown.com/2016/03/legislative-auditor-highlights-problem...

And then, "in the Russian Doll collection sitting on the shelves over in THAT corner," there's the whole Polymet, Twin Metals, mining jobs vs. sulphuric acid in water, heavyweight battle and the way in which the IRRRB, the legislature, the Governor, global commodities traders (like "Swiss Giant" Glencore/Xstrata), shadowy investment banking and (maybe) "over-leveraged entities," the DNR, the MPCA, the EPA, the stock market (see: PLM), the Sierra Club and the you name its all come in to play and battle it out in some constellation no one can quite pinpoint, name, define or claim dominion over (yet!).

You're probably well enough aware of that brouhaha which is way more difficult to say where to begin exploring.

As mentioned, your comments on the main topic here make perfect sense to me. But, at the same time, when "The Range" is involved, NOTHING is "normal." It really IS like some kind of planet or world unto itself where "standard rules" and things that make "perfect sense" sometimes do, but often don't, apply.

And I don't mean that in as negative a way as it may seem. It's a beautiful and interesting place that's home to a whole lot of great and interesting people that, at times, seem to be a lot like people the world could use a lot more of and, at others, like "something else again."

(Just like a lot of other places and people, no doubt)

Champion

Please remember that the folks from the DFL were championing this deal. I am pretty sure they were not looking to give a gift to the mining companies. It seems more likely that the DFL is working to secure future votes.