- Associated Press - Thursday, January 7, 2016

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - With an eye on either salvaging a special session or putting those hopes to rest, lawmakers traded ideas Thursday for bringing Minnesota in compliance with a federal high-security driver’s license law, extend unemployment benefits for laid-off steelworkers and tackle racial economic disparities.

It became clearer by the hour they were far short of the breakthrough needed to schedule an emergency meeting that Gov. Mark Dayton first raised the notion of two months ago. But they pledged to keep trying even if it meant carrying the discussion into next week or beyond, all while the Legislature’s regularly scheduled session creeps toward a March 8 start.

After testimony from small-town mayors and mine workers, Republican Rep. Tom Hackbarth said he agreed it was worthwhile to continue discussions about lengthened unemployment benefits - up to 26 weeks in some proposals.

But, Hackbarth said: “To say we’re ready to say there’s a special session to take care of this issue, I don’t know we can say that.”

The struggles extend to the other possible topics such a session would address.

It’s still unclear just when the Department of Homeland Security will start requiring the Real IDs to board domestic flights, though state officials expect a deadline to be announced sometime this year. The department’s promise of a four-month grace period would push out any flight issues until at least May.

Nearly 30 states haven’t yet fully satisfied the federal government, but that law has made Minnesota the sole state without an extended period to boost its standards.

A panel of lawmakers examining ongoing concerns surrounding driver’s licenses - including plans to upgrade them - focused Thursday on reversing the state’s 2009 law that has blocked the state’s Department of Public Safety from implementing or even discussing the new IDs. Group co-chair Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and other lawmakers said the state should act immediately on upgrades, but Republican Rep. Peggy Scott, another chair, said she didn’t think the emergency session was necessary.

Legislators also briefly considered how to pay for the ID improvements, how long those might take to phase in and whether they should allow residents concerned about their privacy to opt out of the new IDs. Dibble and Scott agreed to keep meeting in the coming days.

Mayors and steelworkers from northeastern Minnesota appeared Thursday before the separate panel that’s considering a 26-week extension of unemployment benefits for mine workers who’ve exhausted their normal half-year allotment.

Booms and busts are natural, Babbitt Mayor Andrea Zupanich told the group, but “this time it feels different.” She said small businesses are losing customers due to layoffs and day care centers watching head counts drop.

United Taconite mine worker Brian Zarn, the president of his local union, said the situation is dire.

“When the mines are down you can’t go to another mine and get hired,” he said. “We are here with our hat in our hands, but we’re out of options.”

Democratic Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm said letting workers collect unemployment checks longer could stop families from leaving the area, which would exacerbate problems. “We’re buying time,” he said.

But Republican Sen. Gary Dahms of Redwood Falls said there’s no sign things will improve even after the extension.

“Do we just come back in 26 weeks and have this conversation again?” Dahms asked.

Two hours of reviewing data showing disproportionately high poverty rates and slumping incomes in black households yielded little clarity on the special session question. But members of the panel assigned to explore those economic gaps promised to press on.

“Whether there’s a special session or not, this is an important topic. And if there isn’t a special session, this will help lay the groundwork for the coming regular session,” said Rep. Jim Knoblach, a St. Cloud Republican co-chairing the group.

Dayton, Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk were expected to meet Friday for a status check.

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