Republicans want to use furloughs, layoffs, wage freezes, lower benefits and early retirement to reduce state government's workforce 15 percent over the next few years.

But the goal goes beyond budget reductions. Republicans said Wednesday they want to create a new state worker model where pay and benefits equal those of the private sector, where employees become "value-added service providers, not bargaining units" and where Minnesota itself becomes a "right to work" state.

Coming on the heels of a bill that would freeze teacher pay and ban their right to strike, Republicans are making clear that much of their efforts this session will be aimed at taking on public employee unions.

"This proposal is about more than balancing the budget. It is about balancing government," said the bill's author, state Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, the bill's chief sponsor. "For too long, state government has relied on one-time measures and looked the other way to foreboding fiscal crisis. Our state can no longer afford the status quo, and our citizens deserve better."

Right-to-work laws, pervasive in Southern states, prohibit unions from requiring prospective employees to pay union dues or join the union. Another GOP legislator recently introduced a constitutional amendment to make Minnesota a right-to-work state.

Democrats criticized the measures as a ham-handed effort to cut state workers and weaken unions without ushering in any reform. They called it "economic suicide" in a struggling economy to eliminate roughly 5,000 workers.

"Slashing jobs instead of creating them will only further weigh down our already fragile and slow economic recovery," said Deputy House Minority Leader Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center. "It's time for Republicans to put forward a plan that creates jobs, not just pink slips."

Reducing the workforce

Facing tough questions on reforms in committee Wednesday, Downey said into the microphone: "Unless you starve the beast ... you are never going to drive to that kind of redesign," he said.

Later, he added: "If we don't draw a line in the sand about the size of our workforce ... we will simply cement that workforce and that cost structure."

Downey's proposed legislation would require DFL Gov. Mark Dayton to use furloughs, layoffs, early-retirement options and restructured benefits to reach the goal in the next few years. The governor would have sole discretion over which tools to use.

With half the state's workforce being nearly 60 or older by 2015, Downey said. the reductions could be handled solely through buyouts and retirement -- without layoffs. Employees from the Minnesota State Colleges and University system would be exempt.

Increased pension costs

The measure would save upward of $400 million every two years, but, he acknowledged, most of the initial savings would go to increased pension costs from new retirees.

With employee costs accounting for less than one-tenth of the state's budget, Democrats contend that a 15 percent trim would produce minimal savings.

"We could pink-slip every single state employee -- every single one of them," said state Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park. "You would have crickets chirping at the DNR, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Revenue, and that alone wouldn't solve our problem."

Eliot Seide, executive director of AFSCME Council 5, which represents 43,000 government and nonprofit workers, said that workers in right-to-work states earn about $5,000 less on average annually than comparable workers in states without such laws.

"It's intended to destroy unions and every worker's right to bargain collectively for a better life," Seide said. "Every worker, public or private, if they play by the rules and work hard, deserves a fair day's pay, affordable health care and a pension so they can retire with dignity."

Democrats say they see a clear picture emerging under Republican rule: Cut corporate taxes, reduce programs for the poor and force thousands of state workers off the payroll.

Minnesota's public employees have long been protected by powerful Democratic allies in the Legislature -- the "L" in DFL stands for "labor" -- and a culture that expects a high quality of government services. Despite years of multibillion-dollar shortfalls, the state has avoided the deep worker cuts that have occurred in other cash-strapped states.

Layoffs not uncommon

Downey pointed to recent studies by national government organizations which show that half the states have already imposed layoffs, 22 states have resorted to furloughs and another 14 have imposed salary cuts or offered early retirement packages.

"This bill is the catalyst for necessary reforms -- intentionally, carefully and with the good of the employees in mind," Downey said. "We can either do this by design now or drive off the cliff later."

Democrats and union leaders pointed to a recent U.S. Census study that says Minnesota already has one of the nation's smaller state government workforces.

According to the study, the state has 71 public employees for every 10,000 Minnesotans. That's the same ratio as Florida, long considered a bastion of small, limited government.

The measure easily passed the House Government Operations and Elections Committee on a voice vote.

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288