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Prospect of quick benefits for Iron Rangers hits snag

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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.

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.

Republicans countered that the tax cuts would return money to employers who have paid into an unemployment fund that has a $1.6 billion surplus, noting that Democratic legislators in the recent past have supported similar — and larger — unemployment tax cuts.

Tensions were running high during the committee hearing. Rep. Jason Metsa, a DFL legislator from the northern town of Virginia, choked up as he talked about his constituents on the Iron Range who were struggling to get by as they exhausted their benefits.

Republicans said they, too, wanted to quickly provide relief to struggling Iron Range workers, but said that the unemployment fund carries a massive surplus that should be returned to employers so they can also prosper.

"There are no differences, (Democrats) agree to both provisions. They've supported this in the past," said Rep. Pat Garofalo, a Republican who chairs the committee. "This is an unfortunate part of the kabuki theater of the Legislature. This is crafted and designed to address both sides."

On Thursday, Gov. Mark Dayton called the GOP's push to pair the multi-million dollar tax cut with the unemployment assistance "immoral." He has signaled he's willing to consider the tax break, but only after they send out checks to laid-off steelworkers whose benefits have already dried up.

"To say that we're going to link the lives and the misfortunes of the good people up in northeastern Minnesota to some contrived, $300 million tax cut for businesses I think is just disgraceful," he said.