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Miner achievement: Legislature extends unemployment benefits for Iron Range workers

Legislators also passed a measure that will distribute $258 million in refunds to businesses that contribute to Minnesota’s $1.6 billion unemployment insurance trust fund.

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

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.

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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.