Minnesota business groups and Republican legislative leaders are pressing for a new state law as they try to undercut a growing number of cities adopting paid-leave regulations.

The issue is a newly emerging wrinkle in negotiations for a special legislative session, as Republicans have added it as a condition for returning to St. Paul to approve unfinished funding for transportation and construction projects.

“It’s a top priority for our members,” said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which includes many of the state’s Fortune 500 companies. “It feels like they’re making it as difficult as they can for businesses large and small to do business in this state.”

The proposed statewide law would undo Minneapolis’ new regulations requiring companies to provide paid leave and thwart St. Paul as its leaders work toward a similar measure.

The effort puts business leaders squarely at odds with community advocates and labor activists, who have focused on passing these changes at the city level, along with more favorable overtime guidelines for workers and a higher minimum wage.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said the issue is too controversial to be dealt with in what is supposed to be a brief special session. He said he’d be open to considering the proposal next year, but only if it came with a guarantee of more paid leave for all state workers.

“If that were combined with something like family leave, it might be negotiable in a regular legislative session when there’s time to have that discussion,” Dayton said.

House Republicans have unsuccessfully tried since early 2015 to pass a measure that would prohibit cities or other municipalities from imposing labor rules that are more stringent than state or federal law.

Election-year politics

The pressures of election-year politics are also at play, with all 201 legislative seats on the ballot. Business advocates say that if DFLers win control of the House and hold the Senate in November, the measure has no chance of becoming law in the near future.

Weaver said his group is also preparing to file a lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis over its new sick-leave ordinance.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, disputed Dayton’s view that the legislation is controversial.

Daudt referred to a 2015 Chamber of Commerce dinner where House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, were asked their positions on efforts to raise the minimum wage at the city level.

Both said they opposed those efforts, with Bakk saying a patchwork of wage laws puts border cities at a competitive disadvantage.

Thissen said in an interview that he opposes the new effort by business groups. “We shouldn’t be interfering if a community and those elected officials want to make a decision to improve workers’ rights,” he said.

Bakk said in a statement that the GOP proposal “simply doesn’t have enough support in our caucus to pass.”

Seeking uniform rules

Business groups and many GOP legislators say a patchwork of labor laws would drive up costs for consumers and, ultimately, hurt workers.

“We think having uniform rules to play by is an important part of having a healthy economy for all Minnesotans,” said Cam Winton, lobbyist with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. Differing labor ordinances would create an administrative headache and sharply increase compliance costs, he said.

Mike Hickey, Minnesota state director of the National Federal of Independent Business, pointed to a company such as Holiday gas stations, which has stores throughout the state.

“Think of what they would have to deal with — 20 different benefit laws across the state,” Hickey said.

Cities take on big issues

Advocates who have pressed for the changes at the city level are concerned that business groups are trying to overrule local officials.

Liz Doyle, the associate director for TakeAction Minnesota and the chairwoman of the Workplace Partnership Group that spent months coming up with recommendations for Minneapolis’ sick-leave ordinance, said the state law would amount to a direct attempt to undermine the city’s carefully constructed policy.

The council’s vote to approve citywide sick leave followed months of discussion in dozens of public listening sessions and meetings of the council and the Workplace Partnership Group, an appointed panel.

Doyle said gridlock in state and national government is contributing to a trend of cities taking on big topics.

“What we’re seeing is urgent issues that need to be solved and a lack of progress on the national level on these issues,” she said. “I think there’s interest in local communities on moving forward in solving these problems.

St. Paul City Council Member Rebecca Noecker said legislators should not try to overrule city policies.

“We have local government because there is an understanding that City Council members have the ability to be closer to their constituents and to be more in touch with their needs and desires than someone at the Legislature,” Noecker said. “I wouldn’t want the Legislature telling our police how to operate or telling us which roads to pave. And when it comes to the health and safety of our citizens, that is something very much within the purview of the city.”

 

Star Tribune staff writers Erin Golden and Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.