- Associated Press - Thursday, March 24, 2016

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Minnesota legislators on Thursday paved the way for unemployment checks to go out to thousands of out-of-work Iron Range miners, abruptly wrapping up a long-awaited deal just after the Senate’s top Democrat doubted whether the relief package would come together.

House lawmakers approved the unemployment extension and voted for $258 million in business tax breaks, a provision Republicans pressed for that had hung up a quick resolution. The Senate passed the tax cut provision earlier Thursday, aiming to press Republicans to send unemployment checks out the door.

A group of five Democrats who represent the Iron Range released a simple statement after the legislation passed: “It’s about time.”

Gov. Mark Dayton signed the bills Thursday; he had delayed a planned trip to California so he could sign them immediately. Thousands of laid-off steelworkers and mine employees who had already used up state benefits will likely start receiving unemployment checks next week. Hundreds more were set to exhaust their insurance by the end of the month.

It wasn’t supposed to take this long. Amid the mine closures and layoffs prompted by an unprecedented downturn in the domestic steel industry and talk of a special session to aid the Iron Range, lawmakers entered the session in early March vowing to pass both bills in the first week.

The final agreement got bogged down over tax breaks: Republicans who control the House pushed to pair the extension with tax relief for businesses that furnish the state’s unemployment fund. Democrats insisted they be passed separately. Dayton and other Democrats ramped up pressure this week on GOP lawmakers to pass both bills before Easter.

In a statement released after he signed the bills, Dayton said he knew that Iron Range lawmakers shared his frustration “that it look so long to accomplish.” While Dayton said he supported the reduction in unemployment taxes for Minnesota’s businesses, the Democratic governor said he disagreed with the tactics Republicans used to pass it.

As late as Thursday afternoon, it appeared relief to thousands of out-of-work miners remained out of reach. Even after the Senate unanimously passed the tax cut bill, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk openly worried that lingering partisan disputes would prevent relief from heading out to the Iron Range. He warned Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt that delaying aid to miners in his district could imperil the $258 million in business tax breaks Republicans had sought.

The final roadblock was a small piece of the bill Republicans wanted, formally declaring the state’s support for mining projects. Bakk noted the heartburn that caused among some environmentally minded Democrats and potential trouble for the state after permitting decisions on proposed copper-nickel mines in northeastern Minnesota. It was removed.

After the bills passed, Daudt said he was “dumbfounded” that the Senate couldn’t agree to include language that declared the Legislature supported mining in Minnesota. He said the House eventually relented because “folks on the Iron Range have waited long enough for this.”

“There’s just a point at which somebody needs to step up and show some leadership and be the adult and say, ‘Enough firing bills back and forth. We’re going to do what’s right and pass both of these bills,’” he said.

While also backing the unemployment extension for miners, GOP lawmakers said the tax relief was crucial to businesses on the Iron Range. Those tax rebates will be doled out to employers this summer, tapping a state unemployment fund that has a $1.6 billion balance.

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This story has been correct to reflect that Republicans who control the House pushed to pair the extension with tax relief for businesses that furnish the state’s unemployment fund, instead of ‘for businesses to furnish’ the fund.

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