Gov. Mark Dayton renewed his call Tuesday for a special legislative session to provide jobless benefits to laid-off Iron Range steelworkers, and picked up a crucial legislative ally in the effort.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk on Tuesday endorsed Dayton’s proposal, saying in a letter to the governor that he is “receptive to negotiating the parameters” to aid several hundred steelworkers who are expected to exhaust their unemployment benefits before lawmakers convene in March.
Dayton said in a news conference that “it’s a very severe situation up there,” and warned that without legislative action, several hundred steelworkers will “be subjected to that additional financial hardship, in addition to the emotional distress of not being employed.”
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, has remained silent on the issue for a week since Dayton made the initial request. A spokeswoman for Daudt said he is still discussing the issue with members of the House GOP caucus.
The Democratic governor is seeking the benefits for workers in a traditional DFL stronghold. It is an area of the state where Republicans have long hoped to make inroads, but Daudt must weigh that against the wishes of GOP legislators reluctant to spend tax money to solve problems.
More than 1,000 steelworkers have been laid off since last spring as steel industry conditions remained stressed worldwide. Steel producers have idled workers as prices for taconite, or iron ore pellets, remain historically low. Countries such as China and Korea also have been accused of underpricing, or dumping, steel imports on the U.S.
Further worsening the economic pain for Iron Rangers was news Tuesday that 540 more workers will be laid off by the end of the month when Cliffs Natural Resources, an iron ore producer, idles its Northshore Mining taconite operation in Silver Bay.
“The economy in northeastern Minnesota would be significantly impacted without action by the Legislature before the next session,” Bakk, DFL-Cook, said in his letter.
Dayton said Minnesota’s congressional delegation is addressing allegations that some countries are dumping low-cost steel in the U.S., but stressed that “in the meantime, I think we need to protect them from the strain of that situation.”
It is not clear when a session might occur, but it is quickly running up against the holiday season, when legislators are reluctant to be pulled away from their families and home districts.
House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, backs the governor’s call for a special session “if that is what it takes to address the hardships facing Minnesota steelworkers.”
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said that calling a special session for issues of such limited scope could set a bad precedent, encouraging laid-off workers from other industries to come forward with equally compelling cases for assistance.
“There are a lot of people who probably are in that category, and to pick one of them out from all the people that are in that particular state would be a little bit unusual and potentially problematic,” Hann said.
Dayton’s challenge in securing extended unemployment benefits will be complicated by what has been at times a fraught relationship with legislators, including members of his own party. They have frequently spurned his legislative priorities over the past year. Most recently, legislators rejected Dayton’s call for a special legislative session over the summer to offer financial relief to Lake Mille Lacs resorts and lodge owners after the state abruptly ended the fishing season prematurely.
Dayton still believes that was the right decision, but is not including aid for lodge and resort owners in his new request for a special legislative session.
“I thought it was warranted in the case of the situation in Mille Lacs,” Dayton said. “Granted, that was not possible. I believe it is imperative in this situation with people who are without any source of income, and no prospects of re-employment sometime soon.”
As governor, Dayton has the sole authority to convene legislators for a special session, but it is politically dicey for the governor because only legislators can adjourn a session. With Republicans controlling the House, that leaves open the possibility of legislators introducing measures on other politically charged policies that could drag out the session or potentially embarrass the governor. Some Republican legislators have expressed strong opposition to Syrian refugees coming to the state after the ISIL attacks in Paris, an issue that could become explosive during a special session.
For that reason, Dayton is seeking a signed agreement on what issues can be brought up and a specific time frame for a special session.
Already, Senate DFLers indicated one additional item on their special session agenda: a repeal of Minnesota’s law that has prohibited the state from complying with federal requirements for state identification cards.
In addition to supporting extending jobless benefits, Bakk said his caucus believes a special session “presents an opportunity for the state to address this important issue.”
Under the Real ID law, identification cards are to be backed by verified proof of birth, residence, Social Security number and citizenship or legal status in the country. Last week, Dayton requested additional time from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to comply with federal requirements. If the state fails to act, travelers would be barred sometime next year from boarding domestic flights and even entering federal buildings with only their Minnesota identification cards.
“After discussing these issues with our caucus, we agree that they rise to the importance of being considered before the start of the 2016 legislative session,” Bakk said in his letter.
Dayton said at the news conference, however, he thinks the Real ID issue can wait until legislators return for their regular session in March.
Dayton also decried what he called political posturing of governors who said they will prevent Syrian refugees from entering their state. Nearly two dozen governors, mostly Republican, said they fear that inadequate screening of refugees could result in the admission of terrorists.
“I want to protect the people of Minnesota every bit as much those governors want to protect the people of their states. To stand up there with swagger, and say ‘I’m going to prevent the wrong people from entering my state’ to me is just ludicrous.”