The bill was a win-win, Rep. Pat Garofalo assured lawmakers: It would extend jobless benefits to laid-off Iron Range workers while also delivering a tax cut to small businesses.

"Thank you, Mr. Chair," said Rep. Jason Metsa, a DFLer from the Range. Then he unleashed.

“You just said [DFL lawmakers] don’t give a crap about our local businesses on the range ….Are you freakin’ kidding me? Are you kidding?”

“I don’t think I said you don’t give a crap,” said Garofalo, presiding over the House committee that oversees job growth. “I think what I said is, this also supports the small businesses as well as the workers.”

With that, Garofalo and his allies passed the bill and set the stage for a political fight when the legislature meets next week. The measure proposed by the Farmington Republican extends jobless benefits for Iron Range workers for 26 weeks while also using the $272 million from the surplus in the state unemployment trust fund to help provide a tax cut for contributing businesses.  

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and lawmakers in his party unsuccessfully pushed the Republicans who control the House for a special session this winter to bail out the hundreds of steel workers laid off from the mines as their unemployment benefits ran out. Now legislators are preparing to vote on extending the compensation as soon as the session begins next Tuesday -- if both sides can only agree on what Republicans will get in exchange for their approval.

Bill McCarthy, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, told Garofalo’s committee that the matters should be addressed separately.

“Workers are struggling and need your help immediately,” McCarthy said. “Holding hostage extended unemployment benefits for workers on the Iron Range in exchange for huge tax giveaways for businesses and putting the future solvency of the [unemployment benefits] trust fund at risk is unconscionable.”

Minnesota Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Cam Winton testified in support of the measure, saying it provided needed reforms to the unemployment insurance system. The jobless rate is low and the cost of unemployment insurance is too high, Winton said. He noted that the improvement in the state’s job market already prompted a reduction in unemployment taxes under Dayton in 2013.

Metsa contested just how much support the measure had in the business community, saying eight local chambers of commerce from northeastern Minnesota had opposed linking the unemployment insurance changes to the extension of jobless benefits.

“What you’re telling my local chambers, my local businesses, is that it’s okay to continue having a political football to kick around, so I want you to take that back to the Minnesota chamber and properly state for the record here today … that [Iron Range legislators] don’t matter,” said Metsa, whose voice broke with emotion during the hearing.

Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, asked about the chamber’s process of gathering input on a bill. How many of his members really showed support for a “clean bill” over a proposal with a separate provision attached?

“The Minnesota chamber has a robust process for bringing in viewpoints of all stakeholders,” Winton began, rattling off his answers: Listening sessions, phone calls, emails, newsletters…

“Mr. Chair, what I’m trying to get at –” Hortman interrupted.

“Hold on! Hold on!” said Garofalo.

“--with regards to this—” Hortman continued.

“Hold! Hold on! Hold on, Rep. Hortman. Mr. Winton, finish your answer,” said Garofalo.

“I’m getting a comprehensive view of all chamber communications,” Hortman said, smirking.

She and the DFLers remained unconvinced that businesses truly supported rolling the two measures into one. And Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul and other critics said they feared bringing the size of the trust fund down if the state faced an economic slowdown, though Winton noted that the statute requires an increase in unemployment taxes on businesses if the balance drops too low.

Garofalo suggested he had done the DFL a favor by putting forth this bill in lieu of a more comprehensive economic development package for northern Minnesota that would have enabled work to begin on billions of dollars in pipeline projects. It would have created civil war for the DFL, he said, pitting environmentalists and trade workers against one another.

The thinking, he added, was, “Let’s find something we can agree on; let’s find something Democrats stated their support for in the past. So this is what we came up with.”

Asking for the benefit extension “is not an easy thing for us proud Iron Rangers to do,” Cliff Tobey, president of United Steelworkers Local 2660, told lawmakers. “I am here today to urge you to help … without playing politics and without attaching unnecessary demands.”

He added that U.S. Steel would be sending a letter supporting “a clean bill, and last I checked they’re a pretty big member of the Chamber of Commerce.”

The steelworker next to him said, “I worked 42 years in that mine.”

He shook his head, leaned back and said no more.

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