The veto fight that roiled the State Capitol for months has ended peaceably. Gov. Mark Dayton, who won a legal battle over his veto of the Legislature’s budget but failed to use the veto to compel reconsideration of several 2017 bill provisions he disliked, was expected to quietly sign a bill late Monday that will fund the Legislature’s operations through mid-2019.
That nearly concludes a chapter in legislative-executive branch relations we hope Minnesotans won’t see repeated. Never again should one branch of state government attempt to paralyze another through defunding. That goes both for governors and the Legislature, which provoked Dayton last year by inserting a funding booby trap in a state government spending bill. It would have automatically defunded the Department of Revenue if Dayton had vetoed the 2017 tax bill.
One bit of what appears to be collateral damage from last year’s fight still needs repair. With a party-line vote in October, a state legislative panel refused to ratify new biennial contracts for the nearly 30,000 state employees represented by AFSCME and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE). Those two unions represent nearly 80 percent of state employees.
The panel’s chair, Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, says she has rejected the contracts to date because she has not received sufficient financial data from state agencies to assure her that the state can afford the proposed raises — 2 percent in the contract’s first year, which began last July 1, and 2.25 percent in the second year. (By comparison, the average private-sector wage increase in the Minneapolis-St. Paul-St. Cloud region during the 12 months ending in June 2017 was 3 percent.)
But the timing of the October move, and the House Republican attempt last week to tie the contracts to a ban on the use of union dues for political purposes without a union member’s permission, suggest that partisan politics is at least one of the drivers of the contracts’ fate. Raises for state employees were whispered last fall to be regarded by some Republicans as potential bargaining chips with the DFL governor.
Now that the veto fight has been settled, political roadblocks to the contracts’ ratification should be removed as well. Minnesota’s increasingly tight labor market makes this a bad time for politicians to make state employment less appealing to potential workers. A 2014 study by the American Enterprise Institute found that public employees in Minnesota already receive wage-and-benefit packages that on average are 3 percent smaller than those paid their private-sector counterparts.
“I’ve been on a number of search committees. We always lose good candidates to the private market because we can’t compete,” said Angie Arnold, director of grants and sponsored projects at Normandale Community College and a MAPE member who appeared at a State Capitol rally last week to urge the Legislature to ratify the contracts. “A public perception that the Legislature doesn’t value what we do, or that every two years we can expect the same uncertainty to play out, doesn’t make working for the state very attractive.”
Public employees have come to expect salary freezes when state and local budgets fall into deficit. They should not also be denied routine raises when times are good. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said last week as the Senate completed work on the Legislature’s funding bill that he intends to bring the contracts to the Senate floor for ratification before Easter. We see no good reason for even that much delay.