Despite support from state government's two top DFLers, a special legislative session to extend unemployment benefits for laid-off Iron Range mine workers appeared unlikely Thursday due to resistance by Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt.
Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk have pushed a special meeting of the Legislature, first for January and then in the first week of February. They wanted to extend unemployment benefits by 26 weeks for a growing group of workers, as well as to start solving Minnesota's noncompliance with the federal Real ID requirement, as well as to possibly start addressing economic disparities afflicting Minnesota's black community.
"When people are really pushed to the brink of total disaster, that to me is when they need the government they depend upon," Dayton said. "And I hope that can be a bipartisan response."
Daudt said he is on board with the unemployment extension and the Real ID fix. But he said those items can wait until March 8, when the regular session starts.
"I believe we can and probably should wait to regular session," said Daudt, R-Crown. Asked repeatedly why it could wait, Daudt was elusive: He said that legislators still have not agreed on detailed language for the bills under consideration and that it was tough to get 201 lawmakers to sign off on an early meeting.
Any governor can call a special session. But Dayton has insisted that before he would do so, the leaders of all four legislative caucuses would have to sign a definitive agreement on what issues would be on the agenda.
Daudt said he promised Dayton and Bakk that he would bring unemployment benefit and Real ID bills up for votes in the full House during the first week of the regular session.
At least several hundred mine workers have been laid off in recent weeks by a group of steel companies, and the number keeps growing. A small group of workers exhausted their unemployment benefits at the end of November, and the numbers continue to grow.
Plunging global steel prices have been pegged as the main culprit. Bakk, whose district includes parts of the Iron Range, said the Legislature must start to grapple with the blow to the region's fundamental economic driver.
"We have an industry in collapse in our state — a very significant industry, with a tremendous amount of uncertainty about when or if it's going to recover," said Bakk, of Cook. "Families up there are making decisions at their kitchen table about whether they have to sell or relocate, and it just seems to me that buying some time so they don't have to make those decisions in a state of family crisis is a responsible thing to do."