Legislative panel unable to agree on two state union contracts.
An attempt to sign off on labor contracts for nearly 28,000 state employees produced a tense, partisan dispute Thursday between Republican legislators who questioned state wages and benefits and DFLers who argued that a 2 percent across-the-board pay raise is well deserved.
The meeting of the Subcommittee on Employee Relations, chaired by Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, who faces a primary in his congressional campaign on Tuesday, produced no decision on the contract. Instead, GOP legislators questioned the structure of public employee compensation, while DFLers got into it with Parry over how he was running the meeting.
"Excuse me, folks, don't make me clear the room," Parry said at one point, when union members in the audience guffawed at a legislator's statement.
"Mr. Chair, if this were a committee hearing to discuss business taxation, and the room was filled with businesses, I don't think that you would be making threats," said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.
Compensation for organized labor has been a flashpoint between the Republican-controlled Legislature and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, and this is the first of the major labor agreements to come up for approval since the governor and Legislature took office in January 2011.
At issue were contracts negotiated between the Dayton administration and two unions: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5, which represents 15,100 workers, and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, representing 12,600.
The contracts call for 2 percent across-the-board pay increases beginning in January, as well as the continuation of annual "step" increases that apply to workers until they reach the maximum salary range. The state would continue to pay 100 percent of health insurance premiums for single employees and 85 percent of dependent coverage, but co-pays, deductibles and the co-insurance amount all would rise.
While agreements ultimately must be approved by the Legislature, the subcommittee has authority to grant interim approval between sessions. Parry scheduled a panel vote for Aug. 23, possibly complicating a flood-relief special session tentatively set for Aug. 24. Current contract terms remain in effect until new agreements are approved.
Parry was accused by union leaders and DFLers of timing Thursday's meeting to advance his chances in his First Congressional District primary Tuesday against former state Rep. Allen Quist. He denied it, and GOP members backed him up, saying it was important that details of the agreement be thoroughly discussed in public before the subcommittee acts.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, noted that many businesses and employees suffered wage decreases during the difficult economic times, but state contracts never call for a decrease. He called that "somewhat shocking." He said that when the two sides could not reach agreement, "it seems like the governor got out the taxpayers' wallet and offered more."
Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, called it a "status quo contract" that did not "reward success."
DFL members said the contract's increase is modest and does not make up for wages lost by some workers during last summer's three-week state shutdown, which was triggered by a budget impasse between the Legislature and the governor. They said private-sector compensation has been on the rise -- although primarily for those with higher incomes -- and noted that state workers have gone without across-the-board hikes for several years.
Parry, who came under fire this week for accusing Dayton of popping pills during private meetings, threatened to clear the room when union members laughed at Rep. Keith Downey's statement that he wanted "to make sure we're treating people fairly.''
Downey, R-Edina, has clashed with unions on support for "right to work" legislation and his plan for a 15 percent workforce reduction.
"Excuse me, I'm the chair, and at the beginning I said I would not put up with any laughing, snickering, any of that," Parry said.
When Winkler suggested that people laugh when something is funny, Parry said, "I didn't believe Representative Downey was being funny."
"It doesn't mean it wasn't humorous," Winkler said.
"I don't think the taxpayers think Mr. Downey was being funny, either," Benson said, "and there are not a lot of them in the room today." That produced a chorus of oohs from the audience, and Benson apologized.
When the kerfuffle erupted later in the meeting and Parry called for a 10-minute cooling-off period, a shout of "Pop some pills!" came from the audience.
A vote against the contracts by the subcommittee, as seems likely with its GOP majority, could block implementation. The issue could eventually come before the full Legislature, but a spokesman for the governor said Dayton will insist on a limited agenda for the special session, and this would probably not be on it. The issue is further complicated by the November election, which could change partisan control of one or both houses.
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042