Mention a special session of the Minnesota Legislature, as Gov. Mark Dayton has been doing with some frequency, and suggestions for a variety of agenda items quickly pop onto political radar screens. Minnesotans shouldn’t be surprised. They rely heavily on state-level government for crucial services. Going nine months without legislative activity is proving to be a long and increasingly uncomfortable stretch.
Still, we have been surprised that many of the policymaking desires voiced by state leaders in recent weeks are not the quick fixes of which special session agendas usually are made. Tackling the long-term problems of the mining industry on the Iron Range, as suggested last week by GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt, is heavy legislative lifting, not to mention a major issue for Minnesota’s congressional delegation as it seeks a federal crackdown on illegal steel dumping by foreign producers.
Likewise, state efforts to help narrow Minnesota’s racial disparities in employment, income, education and health, as suggested by Dayton and DFL leaders, are much in order. But meaningful action isn’t likely to be the stuff of single bills approved in the customary haste of a special session.
If Dayton calls legislators to St. Paul before their scheduled March 8 return, it should be for a narrowly defined, pressing purpose — ideally one to which legislative leaders have agreed in advance. Of all the proposals in recent weeks, the one that best fits that bill is an extension of unemployment benefits for roughly 600 laid-off workers on the Iron Range who are due to exhaust existing benefits early next year — a number that seems likely to increase as 2016 unfolds.
There’s ample precedent: the Legislature has taken such a step before, during recessions. What’s worrisome about the current Iron Range downturn is that it is happening while the rest of the U.S. economy is prospering. Those conditions add urgency to a benefits extension. Without it, desperate mining families will be more likely to move away for jobs elsewhere, depleting the Iron Range’s long-term prospects and shrinking this state’s already too-lean workforce.
A benefits extension would not preclude any other tax and/or spending decisions the 2016 Legislature might make. It would draw down a fund earmarked for unemployment benefits via payroll taxes, not the state’s general fund.
Daudt is likely right when he says that the Iron Range’s employment woes won’t be solved by another 13 or 26 weeks of unemployment benefits alone. But the remedy Daudt and other Republicans seek isn’t a sound one. They say they want the Dayton administration to short-circuit the permitting process for two environmentally sensitive projects, the Sandpiper pipeline to carry oil from North Dakota to Superior, Wis., and the PolyMet copper-nickel mine proposed for Hoyt Lakes.
Cutting short those permitting processes could backfire. Such moves would provide legal ammunition to the projects’ opponents and increase chances that lawsuits would slow or stop them, lengthening rather than shortening their timelines for job creation.
That doesn’t mean state government can’t do more to help Minnesotans whose livelihoods are at risk because of unfair foreign competition. House Republicans might consider shoring up the five Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) campuses that comprise the Northeast Higher Education District, so that more furloughed workers can use their time away from work to upgrade their skills or prepare for new careers. That should be an item in a supplemental budget bill in the 2016 regular session.
State leaders also can press Congress and the Obama administration to do more to protect the domestic steel industry. U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken have been outspoken about the need for stronger and swifter action to block the dumping of cheap steel from China and Australia in the U.S. market. They are calling for quicker action by the International Trade Commission on U.S. complaints and for the imposition of import duty fees both retroactively and in advance when a U.S. industry is deemed to be in dire circumstances, as is the steel industry today, Klobuchar said last week. Eighth District U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan would go further still, proposing to ban all foreign steel imports for five years.
Those are the hopes that are keeping many laid-off workers in place on the Iron Range and in Minnesota. “If there’s fair competition, I don’t see any reason this industry won’t be back,” says Mark Phillips, commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. When it’s back, will the Iron Range workforce still be there? That’s a question that a special session can help answer.
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