Armed with statistics on payments to state employees for unused sick time, Republican and DFL legislators jousted Tuesday over who was responsible for payouts that in a handful of cases topped $100,000 for workers leaving state employment.
Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, who chairs a House-Senate subcommittee on employee relations, said he would hold hearings on a decades-old system that allowed state employees to receive payouts at retirement for unused sick and vacation time.
While Republicans and DFLers acknowledged the provisions had long been a feature of public employee union contracts, both said the payments need to be re-examined given the state's sour economy and the fact that such perks are not available in the private sector.
"I was somewhat surprised, as were many people, that these kinds of payouts were happening," said Parry, who has drawn the ire of DFLers and public employee unions for his aggressive stance on public employee contracts.
The statistics, first reported by the St. Paul Pioneer Press, show that some officials of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system received payments exceeding $100,000 on retirement. But public employee union officials said the vast majority of state workers received far less.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5, which represents 18,000 state workers, said its average was just $3,500, and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees' average was $7,200.
Former MnSCU chancellor James McCormick, however, received $92,965 in unused sick-time payments, part of a severance package that totaled $272,995. MnSCU records show that in 2006, for example, McCormick was paid a salary of $285,961 as part of a four-year contract.
Former Bemidji State University Jon Quistgaard, who simultaneously headed Northwest Technical College, received $126,509 in unused sick-time money. John Asmussen, another MnSCU administrator who earned $146,405 annually when he left in July 2010, received $93,705 in unused sick and vacation pay.
MnSCU spokeswoman Melinda Voss defended the payments, saying they were in many cases necessary to attract nationwide talent to the 54-campus state university system. "All the dollars spent on separation pay amount to about one percent of [our] payroll," she said. "People can make up their own minds," she said, on whether the payments were excessive.
Katharine Tinucci, a spokeswoman for Gov. Mark Dayton, had little comment on the disclosures or Parry's decision to hold hearings.
"These contracts were negotiated by the state and approved by the Legislature, and if the Legislature has further questions, it is their prerogative to hold hearings," she said.
Parry said, however, that the public employee union provisions were put in place while DFLers had a decades-long majority in the Minnesota Senate, and while the Legislature and others had simply taken a "rubber stamp" approach to worker contracts.
"In business, you don't do that," said Parry, who wants state government to adopt more private business practices.
But Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, who also serves on the House-Senate employee relations subcommittee, disagreed. The state university contracts came about or were renewed while Minnesota Chamber of Commerce president David Olson -- often an ally of Republicans -- chaired MnSCU's board, said Winkler.
"If it wasn't for the MnSCU, you know, payouts, it wouldn't even be news, right?" said Winkler. "Nobody's going to write about a $7,000 [payout] for somebody who worked for the state for 40 years."
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673