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State labor contracts debated

Published (1/21/2011)
By Nick Busse
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Members of a House committee debated the wisdom and practicality of making changes to state labor contracts at an informational hearing Jan. 19.

The House State Government Finance Committee held an overview of the state’s negotiation process with public employee labor unions. Chairman Morrie Lanning (R-Moorhead) said labor agreements are a “big-picture issue” that lawmakers should consider in light of the state’s ongoing budget crunch.

“We’re not talking about tinkering at all with existing contracts,” Lanning said. “What our focus needs to be going forward is what our approach would be to future contracts.”

Minnesota Management & Budget Assistant Commissioner Barbara Holmes, as the state’s lead labor contract negotiator, said the Legislature typically stays out of labor negotiations. She said laws could be passed that would spell out specifically how MMB should negotiate with the unions, but she said it could have negative consequences.

“The issue for the Legislature to decide is how is it going to give direction without interfering with the agreement process that we have to reach?” Holmes said.

A key issue is public employee salaries. Rep. Mike Benson (R-Rochester) asked whether any data exists on how Minnesota public employees are compensated compared to those in other states.

Holmes replied that Minnesota ranks 20th nationally in average annual public employee salary, but said she isn’t aware of any data that takes into account disparities in cost of living and other variables.

Lanning said the process for labor contract negotiations is spelled out in state law, but noted also that legislators have the opportunity to change that law as they see fit. For example, he said the Legislature could pass a salary freeze for all state employees that negotiators on both sides would be bound to accept. He hoped legislators and the governor’s staff would communicate with each other about labor agreement expectations during the course of the session.

“I would hate to see us get to the point where the Legislature has one expectation, the governor has another, and we have a stalemate,” Lanning said.

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