Legislative subcommittee spars over contracts, delays action until Aug. 23
The Legislature’s Subcommittee on Employee Relations (SER) had a sometimes heated two-hour hearing on MAPE's and AFSCME Council 5's contracts before adjourning without acting on them Thursday morning at the State Capitol.
SER Chair Mike Parry (R-Waseca) said the committee would reconvene at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 23, for an up-or-down vote on the contracts. State Sen. Parry is running for the Republican nomination against Tim Walz in the First Congressional District.
As legislators entered the hearing room, they were confronted with signs and chants of, “fair contract now” (see top two photos on the upper right). Many union members attended the hearing, both inside and outside the hearing room.
(In the third photo down from the top, MAPE Executive Director Jim Monroe spoke to union members who attended the hearing. Photo below, Reps. Ryan Winkler, left, and Leon Lillie, right, confer with Sen. Jim Metzen.)
The subcommittee has authority to give interim approval to the contracts. However, a negative vote by the subcommittee, which has six Republicans and four Democrats, wouldn't invalidate them. The Legislature has the final say and all 201 seats are on line in this fall's election, making it even more imperative that MAPE members help elect a union friendly legislative majority this fall.
The sparring between DFL and Republican SER members began right away (click on the lower right-hand photo of Parry to view a video clip). Sen. Parry announced at the start of the hearing that his intent was to only “fully vet” the contracts at this first meeting and he had no plans to vote on the MAPE and AFSCME contracts. He bemoaned that it had taken 1 1/2 years to get to this point, and that legislators needed time to study them and take them back to members of their districts.
Leon Lillie (DFL-North St. Paul) challenged Sen. Parry’s pre-conceived notion that the subcommittee couldn’t delve into the details of the contracts and still vote on them in one day. “That’s not the way it’s been done …” Rep. Lillie pointed out.
It was later pointed out to Sen. Parry by legislators and the governor’s staff that the blame for part of the delay in getting contract negotiations completed rested back with the Legislature for not completing its work on the budget in a timely manner and the government shutdown that ate up last spring and part of summer.
Sen. Parry called for a 10-minute cooling-off recess after audience members reacted with laughter to Rep. Keith Downey’s (R-Edina) comment that he just wanted to see that public employees had fair compensation. The crowd also gasped when Sen. Michelle Benson (R-Ham Lake) questioned whether there were enough taxpayers in the room – a comment for which she later apologized. "Everybody in this room is a taxpayer," Rep. Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley) said in response.
Sen. Parry threatened to clear the room. After the sparring heated up again among legislators, he quickly gaveled the recess.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa), and Rep. Keith Downey (R-Edina) repeatedly questioned the rising costs to the state and expressed disappointment that the structure of the contract was unchanged. DFLers said the increases were "modest," particularly since 19,000 public employees lost $65 million in wages during a three-week state shutdown due to a budget impasse last summer.
Rep. Drazkowski repeatedly tried to compare the public employee contracts to the “private sector,” where he claimed employees were seeing wage decreases. Rep. Winkler challenged that, quoting data that private sector employees were seeing significantly larger wage increases than public employees.
“But, the increase (in wages) has been small,” said Barb Holmes, assistant commissioner/state labor negotiator (pictured on the right in the fifth photo down from the top). While the MAPE and AFSCME contracts call for 2 percent across-the-board wage increase in January, Holmes added that they also invoke nearly $8 million in health-care cost savings.
Holmes agreed with Rep. Winkler that, if the contracts aren’t approved, the state won’t realize the nearly $8 million in health-care cost savings. Rep. Winkler pointed to the 2 percent raise as modest. He added that 19,000 public employees lost $65 million in wages when they were out of work for three weeks during last year’s state government shutdown. It was later pointed out that some legislators still took their paychecks during the shutdown.
Rep. Winkler directly addressed union members sitting in on the hearing, saying they weren’t being given proper respect by Republican members of the subcommittee. “Thank you for coming,” Rep. Winkler said. “I want to thank you for all of the work you do.”
Rep. Winkler portrayed the agreements as “modest” and “reasonable.” He added, “As responsible, reasonable employers, we should approve these contracts.”
Sen. Jim Metzen (DFL-South St. Paul) echoed those thoughts. “You have a modest two percent increase ... I think we should ratify these agreements and go home.”
(Sen. Parry is pictured in the second photo up from the bottom meeting with the media after Thursday's hearing. He refused to answer questions about his congressional campaign -- saying he'd meet the media in 15 minutes outside the building to talk about the campaign, but Parry was a no-show. For more information, go here: http://www.startribune.com/politics/blogs/165634146.html)