State union benefits scrutinized

  • Article by: JENNIFER BROOKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 20, 2012 - 12:11 PM

Legislators critique compensation practices at MnSCU.

Republicans in the Legislature are taking a closer look at retirement benefits at state colleges and universities and expressing impatience as state workers pass a six-month mark without new union contracts.

"I'm very disappointed," said Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, as Thursday's hearing of the Legislative Coordinating Commission's Subcommittee on Employee Relations opened with an update on the progress -- or lack thereof -- of labor talks. "Somebody is dragging their feet."

Parry also questioned Minnesota State Colleges and University officials about the practice of allowing longtime employees to cash in unused vacation days upon retirement, allowing some to accumulate five-figure, or even a few six-figure, bonuses. That sort of "unchecked spending is no longer acceptable," Parry said.

Laura King, MnSCU's vice chancellor for administration and finance, said that even with extra cash at retirement, most top MnSCU administrators earn substantially less than their colleagues at comparable schools nationwide. She said the system was open to discussing alternative ways to attract top talent.

While Republicans floated the idea of banning the practice, Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, said part of the reason universities turn to incentives like banking sick days is because the Legislature cut off other forms of compensation.

"If we've tied your hands on how you structure a competitive compensation package, maybe that is something we need to look at," Downey said.

Meanwhile, thousands of other state employees are still waiting for the contracts that will set their salaries and benefits for the next two years.

Contracts for more than 34,000 workers were delayed by the budget stalemate last summer and the government shutdown that followed.

Until a new contract is approved, state workers will abide by the terms of their current contract, negotiated in 2009 with the Pawlenty administration.

DFLers questioned whether a Legislature that ran two months past deadline on the state budget and triggered a shutdown was in the best position to cast stones.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-St. Paul, accused Republicans of ginning up "trumped-up outrage" over a negotiation process that doesn't cost taxpayers anything extra. "We can cool it a little bit," he said, "and stop trying to blame state workers for the [Legislature's] inept budgeting."

Asked whether contract talks are moving slower than normal, Barbara Holmes, the state's assistant commissioner for labor relations, could only shrug and smile.

"What's normal?" she said. "We're in one of the most unusual and difficult times for resolving labor issues right now because of fiscal issues, and because of political issues and the economy. ... I don't think anyone should be surprised that this is a difficult year for settling contracts."

Jennifer Brooks • 615-925-5049

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