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Minnesota would not have to pay for miner unemployment benefits extension

ST. PAUL — Minnesota taxpayers would not pay if the state Legislature approves extending unemployment benefits for laid-off miners.

Hundreds of miners will run out of unemployment benefits before the Legislature convenes in regular session March 8. Gov. Mark Dayton and Iron Range lawmakers say a special legislative session is needed to give workers aid.

Another 26 weeks of unemployment benefits would “buy some time” for northeastern Minnesota miners to decide about their future, Sen. Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said.

“The difficult thing about this is we don’t know when or if it is going to come back,” Bakk said about the steel industry. “This is a different kind of a downturn. I would argue that let’s give people a little more time before they put their house up for sale and they move.”

Bakk added: “It is not a good time for a family to be in crisis and have to make a snap decision.”

About 2,000 miners have been laid off, either temporarily or permanently. The man who heads Minnesota’s unemployment insurance program, Rick Caligiuri, said there could be even more workers laid off who work for businesses that rely on mining.

“We just don’t have a good handle on all of the other jobs in the Iron Range that have been impacted,” Caligiuri said.

There is enough money in an existing fund to cover extended benefits, Caligiuri said. The money comes from taxes levied on businesses specifically for unemployment insurance.

No general state tax money will be needed if unemployment benefits are extended, Caligiuri said.

The unemployment extension issue is one of three being considered for a special legislative session that Bakk and Democrat Dayton want to schedule for later this month. Dayton has said he wants Bakk and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, to tell him by Friday if they think a special session will be possible.

Bakk said he and Daudt plan to discuss the matter Thursday night, after three legislative committees discuss the trio of issues under consideration. Besides the unemployment situation, lawmakers will look into conforming state driver’s licenses to federal standards and how to begin addressing financial disparities between black and white Minnesotans.

“I think it probably is going to take a little work,” Bakk said Tuesday when asked if he could convince Daudt to agree to a special session. “I talked to him last night.”

Daudt has said he wants other economy-related issues discussed if the unemployment bill is to be considered. He said, for instance, that the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine needs quick approval after 10 years of study. Bakk, a PolyMet supporter, said he would not go along with short-circuiting an environmental study that could be approved within months.

The resolution of the Iron Range employment problem is out of state hands. Federal officials are looking at what they might do to help the American steel industry.

Iron Range taconite pellets are used to make steel, but many steel mills are closed because cheaper product is being sold by other countries.

Minnesota needs to see if “some of those blast furnaces come back up” before knowing the fate of range workers, Bakk said.

Bakk, who represents many of the laid-off miners, said some smaller mine companies may face bankruptcy, while others could come back.

The layoffs have affected many area towns, he said. In some cases, communities have a smaller population than the number of people laid off from local mines.

“Having no income is a pretty significant impact on a small town,” he said.

Up to two years of federal payments are available to workers who take training for new jobs. However, Bakk and Caligiuri said, many of the miners are near 60 years old and not interested in changing professions. Others hope mines recall them.

“The dynamic is that people were holding out and holding out (signing up for federal training funds), thinking there would be a special session or in hopes that they would be called back to work,” Caligiuri said.

While Dayton advisers estimated that 600 would need extended benefits, no one knows how many Iron Rangers would take advantage of them, if legislators approve them, because of the unknowns such as how many may take federal training money. However, Bakk said, more are losing benefits every month.

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Special session must be set soon

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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