ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Gov. Mark Dayton abruptly dropped his months-long push for a special session Tuesday, conceding that time had basically run out to extend unemployment benefits for out-of-work miners on the Iron Range.
It ends nearly three months of negotiations and speculation over a would-be emergency session. The Democratic governor first raised the idea in November as steelworkers' unemployment began to lapse, later adding to the agenda a long-brewing dispute with the federal government over driver's licenses and tackling economic racial disparities.
But with the Legislature's regularly scheduled return in early March, Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt had said he preferred not to return early. Dayton accused GOP lawmakers on Tuesday of running out the clock and forcing his hand to ditch the effort.
"It's really appalling. The only thing standing between Rangers and relief is that Republicans are unwilling to do what's right for Minnesota families," Dayton said at a news conference. "I think Republicans have slow-walked it to death."
After weeks of saying a special session wasn't needed, Daudt said Tuesday he would have agreed to one if debate over how to address widening income and unemployment gaps between black and white residents — which he said was the sole barrier to reaching a deal over a special session — was left for the spring.
The Iron Range in northeast Minnesota has seen mine closures and layoffs due to an unprecedented downturn in the global steel economy. Unemployment benefits for nearly 3,000 steelworkers and mine laborers will run out before lawmakers return to the Capitol on March 8.
Dayton called to extend that support in a November letter to legislative leaders, and said the state should take initial steps to satisfy the federal government's Real ID act to avoid possible domestic flight disruptions when higher driver's license standards take effect in 2018.
He and other lawmakers also hoped a special session could tackle widening racial disparities to provide a sign of their attention to unrest in north Minneapolis after a 24-year-old black man was shot and killed by police last year.
Working groups of lawmakers began assembling relief packages last month, and honed in on deals to extend un. But some areas of disagreement remained.
Dayton also bristled at the GOP's insistence that an unemployment extension for miners be paired with a tax cut for the businesses that furnish the state's unemployment trust fund. Daudt defended that change last week as a necessary measure, given the fund's current $1.6 billion surplus.
Daudt vowed to queue up fixes for unemployment and driver's licenses in the first week of coming session.
"I hold out hope that at the very least Republicans will hold to their word to take action on these critical issues the first week of session, because there are too many Minnesotans who should not be asked wait any longer," Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said in a statement.