Iron Range worker aid, unemployment tax cut pass

Laid-off Iron Range mine workers who had exhausted unemployment benefits will start receiving a new round of checks next week and businesses statewide will see a cut in the premiums they pay into the unemployment fund.

The Legislature gave final approval to both measures Thursday after a frenzied day of negotiations and landslide votes. The issues, which had been intertwined for weeks, ultimately went Gov. Mark Dayton in separate bills.

Dayton pledged to sign both and even postponed a scheduled trip to California by a day to get it done. He said the relief for those in northeastern Minnesota is urgent.

"I know they share my frustration that it took so long to accomplish," Dayton said in a prepared statement.

Democratic House lawmakers from the Iron Range summed up their mood with a joint statement after passage of the bill providing up to 26 weeks in additional unemployment benefits. "It's about time," they declared.

Dayton's administration said Department of Employment and Economic Development officials will begin contacting affected workers immediately to make them aware of their eligibility. Payments can be turned around a business day or two after applications are sent, meaning checks could go out soon.

The downturn in the domestic steel industry has dealt a huge blow to the Iron Range. Many taconite plants have slowed or stopped production for extended periods so industry employees have faced layoffs that go far beyond the normal limits for unemployment assistance. Lawmakers agreed to make them eligible for the extra time to help them weather a regional storm and reduce the chances they uproot from northeastern Minnesota.

Republicans also notched a big win.

The second bill contains more than $250 million in rebates to businesses that pay into the unemployment fund. Some companies will qualify for the credits this summer while others will get their relief next year. It's a nod to the solid state of the fund, which is running a record balance of $1.6 billion and climbing. The bill also establishes triggers for automatic reductions when future balances exceed certain solvency thresholds.

Mike Hickey, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, applauded the relief. He said businesses will likely reinvest the savings in new hires or new equipment. And with the unemployment account balance so high, he said there was little risk of it running dry if the economy turns south.

"They need to give some back to people who fund 100 percent of this," Hickey said. "Employees do not contribute to unemployment. You only get it. You don't contribute toward it."

Not all companies will qualify for credits on the minimum $31 per employee per year they pay. Those with a history of frequent layoffs _ they often pay higher premiums _ aren't eligible.

Dayton said he was supportive of that goal, "although I disagree with the tactics used to pass it."

The standoff over both measures had frayed relations among House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, who hails from the Iron Range. Bakk lashed out earlier in the day when the final passage had been in doubt, saying the push for tax relief should have never bogged down the emergency worker assistance.

"No one has ever tried to hold up an emergency bill like this, hold it hostage for something else they want," Bakk said before the House took its vote. "I think they think that because I have constituents impacted they will prevail. I think they're underestimating me."

Daudt said both provisions were incredibly important.

“We’re really proud of the fact that today we voted for the second time in the House to extend unemployment benefits for folks up on the Iron Range. We also voted for the language that would reform the Unemployment Trust Fund, that will put $258 million back into the economy this year, which we think is important for economic growth as well all over the state, not just on the Range,” he said.

But Daudt criticized Senate Democrats for refusing to include a statement of support for the mining industry, which was included in the earlier House version of the legislation.

“That was what was holding this whole thing up,” he said. “Folks on the Iron Range ought to pay attention to the fact that that was the hang up here.”

Bakk said there hasn't been a clear explanation of what ramifications the mining statement would have and whether it would expose the state to legal risk if new mining ventures aren't approved by regulators.

The Legislature immediately heads out on a short Easter recess. It will return on Tuesday, with about seven weeks and a lot of decisions still ahead before the May 23 mandatory adjournment.

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