- Associated Press - Monday, March 14, 2016

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - House Republicans made progress Monday on linking a measure to extend unemployment benefits for laid-off Iron Range steelworkers with tax credits for the state’s businesses, but could face opposition from Democrats who don’t want the two items tied together.

The House Ways and Means Committee passed the bill that would extend benefits for Iron Range workers for 26 weeks, paired with language granting roughly $258 million in tax breaks to employers who contribute to the state’s $1.6 billion unemployment trust fund.

The Iron Range in northeast Minnesota has seen mine closures and layoffs due to an unprecedented downturn in the steel industry. Thousands have been laid off in the last year and have already exhausted their benefits. Legislators from both parties have vowed to make extending benefits one of their first priorities this session.

Republicans on the committee signaled that the bill is a reasonable compromise for Democrats who have staunchly opposed directly tying unemployment benefits to the tax credits, and instead have said they want to pass a “clean” bill.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, a Farmington Republican, inserted new language into the bill Monday that he said is agreeable to the DFL, and said the proposal now includes two provisions supported by Democrats.

“When there’s nothing controversial in a bill, it’s clean,” said Garofalo said. “It’s safe to say that both the provisions you see right now are clean and that there’s no opposition to it.”

No Democrats on the committee opposed the final version of the bill Monday, but it’s unclear whether that will be the case when it reaches the full House of Representatives. Rep. Tim Mahoney, a St. Paul Democrat, said he doesn’t like pairing the two items but voted for the measure because “we have 6,000 people who are suffering on the Iron Range.”

“It is not good for us as an institution to tie these types of things together,” he said.

The proposal would return about $258 million to the state’s businesses instead of the original $272 million and would automatically return money to employers in future years if the unemployment fund reaches a certain threshold.

The measure could be taken up by the full House later in the week.

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