A tense legislative subcommittee hearing into tentative contracts for two large state unions revealed a GOP-DFL divide on wages and benefits.

The Subcommittee on Employee Relations, chaired by Sen. Mike Parry-R-Waseca, who faces a GOP primary in the 1st Congressional District race on Tuesday, became so testy at one point that Parry called a 10-minute cooling-off recess.

The panel, which has the authority to give interim approval to contracts negotiated with AFSCME and MAPE, discussed the provisions but took no vote. Parry said the panel would re-convene on Aug. 23 and vote on the package. With a 6-4 Republican advantage, passage seems unlikely.

Debate over the terms of the contract, which include a 2 percent across-the-board pay hike effective Jan. 2, was at times eclipsed by debate over Parry's chairmanship style. Many union members attended the hearing, and got on Parry's bad side when they guffawed at one legislator's statement.

"Excuse me, folks, don't make me clear the room," Parry said, triggering a long-running series of arguments with DFL Reps. Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley and Leon Lillie of North St. Paul.  When his leadership was questioned, Parry said, "We'll live by my rules for my committee."

The crowd also gasped when Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, questioned whethere there were enough taxpayers in the room -- a comment for which she later apologized.  "Everybody in this room is a taxpayer," Winkler responded.

The meeting was called to discuss two proposed contracts covering a total of 27,700 state workers, both of which were negotiated with the Dayton Administration and ratified by the two unions. In addition to the across-the-board hike, the contracts keep intact the annual "step" increases granted to lower-seniority employees.

Workers agreed to increase health insurance co-pays, deductibles and co-insurance amounts under the new contract. The state will continue to pay 85 percent of the insurance premiums for family coverage and 100 percent of the premiums for single coverage.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, the subcommittee co-chair, and Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, questioned the rising cost to the states, and other GOP members expressed disappointment that the structure of the contract was unchanged. DFLers said the increases were "modest," particularly since state workers lost money during a three-week state shutdown due to a budget impasse last summer.

Ultimately, the contracts must go to the Legislature for approval, but the subcommittee can approve them while the Legislature is out of session. Parry's next date, when he promised an up-or-down vote, could come a day before a special Legislative session called to approve flood relief. Aug. 24 is the tentative date for the special session.


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