House Republicans play politics with unemployment extension for steelworkers

capitolSteelworkers pleaded with members of a House committee yesterday to pass a clean bill extending unemployment benefits to workers impacted by the Iron Range mining slowdown, but they couldn’t convince Republicans, who continued holding the relief package hostage for $271 million in tax cuts for businesses.

“Believe me, this is not an easy thing for us proud Iron Rangers to do,” Cliff Tobey, president of United Steelworkers Local 2660, told members of the House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Committee.

Tobey and another laid-off Steelworker traveled to St. Paul to testify in favor of extending benefits by 26 weeks for workers impacted by the crisis, which was triggered by an influx of cheap foreign steel that flooded the U.S. market and left ore prices at a 10-year low.

Most of the region’s 11 mining outfits have issued layoffs in the last 12 months, and by the time the legislative session starts Tuesday, about 1,200 Iron Range workers will have exhausted their unemployment benefits.

Toby urged committee members to pass the extension “without attaching unnecessary demands,” but Republicans couldn’t resist including a tax rebate for businesses that pay into the state’s unemployment insurance fund.

The bill passed the committee over objections from members of the DFL minority, who said the two issues – extending benefits for steelworkers and reforming the state’s unemployment insurance system – deserve separate consideration.

Rep. Jason Metsa, whose District 6B includes the heart of taconite mining country, choked up as he appealed to his Republican colleagues.

“These guys gotta go back to their families and their friends and tell them we didn’t get it done,” Metsa said of the Steelworkers who testified. “Let’s do the right thing and set these (issues) on two different tracks.”

The committee’s vote cast doubt on whether lawmakers will be able to pass an extension of benefits during the first week of session, a goal set by Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders.

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development estimates mining companies have laid off 2,000 workers since March 1, 2015, and the slowdown has impacted an additional 4,700 Iron Range workers in mining-related jobs.

DEED has crafted a relief package to extend benefits for about 2,750 workers at a cost to the unemployment insurance trust fund of $29.7 million. The Republican tax break would siphon nearly 10 times that amount from the state’s unemployment trust fund, leaving its balance below federal guidelines, DEED Commissioner Katie Clark Sieben said.

“We know that a recession can deplete reserves quickly,” Sieben warned.

In 2009, for example, the unemployment fund paid out $1.7 billion – more than its current $1.57 billion balance. Faced with $1.4 billion in claims in 2010, the fund was forced to borrow from the federal government to meet its obligations, a debt that took almost three years to pay back.

“Putting the future solvency of our unemployment insurance trust fund at risk is unconscionable,” Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy told the committee.

But with each additional day Republicans play politics with the issue, more Iron Range families see their benefits disappear.

Tobey, a third-generation miner, said his local has 360 members “out on the street right now trying to feed their families, trying to pay their mortgages, trying to get by.” He questioned whether Republicans would insist on business tax cuts before providing flood relief or assistance in the wake of a bridge collapse.

“We have no more control over other countries flooding our market (with cheap steel) than the people of Minnesota have over falling bridges and flooding rivers,” he said.

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