Gov. Mark Dayton is calling for a special meeting of the state Legislature in order to extend state unemployment benefits to about 600 steelworkers from the Iron Range who would otherwise see them run out.
Dayton made the request in a letter sent Wednesday to DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt. Neither had any immediate response to the governor's suggestion that a special session be held before the end of the year or early in 2016 before a regularly scheduled session that starts March 8.
"I want to make you aware of the financial crises confronting Minnesota's steelworkers," Dayton wrote to Bakk and Daudt. Since last spring, companies including Minntac, U.S. Steel and Magnetation have laid off workers from facilities in Chisholm and Keewatin as the price of taconite plunged worldwide in the face of lessening demand for steel and iron.
As of Oct. 29, Dayton wrote, an estimated 1,413 workers affected by mine layoffs on the Iron Range had applied for unemployment insurance benefits. Of those, an estimated 867 are still requesting the benefits each week.
From within that smaller group, Dayton said the Department of Employment and Economic Development believes a subset of 596 workers will see their regular benefits exhausted by February or March of 2016.
"I urge you to agree to our calling a Special Session of the Minnesota Legislature before the end of this year or early next year, before nearly 600 Minnesotans will have exhausted their unemployment benefits," Dayton wrote. He did not include any specific proposals in his letter.
Dayton's spokesman said the administration would have no further comment on the letter for the time being. Dayton has canceled most public appearances and meetings in recent days as he tends to his father, who is ailing.
A spokeswoman for Bakk, whose Senate district includes a small portion of the Iron Range, said he would not comment on Dayton's request until after Senate Democrats discuss it as a group at a meeting scheduled for Monday. Daudt's spokeswoman said she wasn't immediately able to reach him for a response.
Daudt, Bakk and other leading lawmakers were unreceptive to Dayton's last call for a special session. That was in August, when the DFL governor proposed lawmakers gather to pass a relief package for fishing and tourism-based businesses around Lake Mille Lacs who were adversely affected by a record-low walleye harvest.
At the time, some lawmakers criticized Dayton's request as too narrowly focused, with the potential to give the appearance that state government would be playing favorites for a relatively tiny sector of the state economy. Among the lawmakers to level that charge were several from the Iron Range, who argued that laid-off steelworkers in their districts were equally worthy of state assistance.