Thursday morning’s meeting of the legislative Subcommittee on Employee Relations gave legislators a chance to sound off on the terms of two recently negotiated public sector union contracts — and, not incidentally, to seize the moment for a bit of political grandstanding. But in the end, the panel deferred any vote on the state’s deals with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE).
The atmosphere at the hearing, which was attended by a large contingent of members from the two unions, lent itself to moments of high emotion despite the remonstrances of Chairman Mike Parry, who played the role of steely-eyed taskmaster in his final bit of official legislative duty before he meets Allen Quist in the Aug. 14 First District Republican congressional primary.
When Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, said that he wanted to make sure “we’re treating people fairly,” the remark elicited spontaneous laughter from some union supporters.
That caused Parry to bang his gavel. “Excuse me, folks,” he said. “Don’t make me clear the room.”
Aside from that single outburst from the unions, however, the crowd in attendance generally behaved courteously. If anything, it was the committee members themselves whose contentious asides threatened to derail the hearing. It was clear that the Democrats on the panel shared the widespread perception that the hearing was a means of promoting Parry’s tough-on-unions stance in advance of his congressional primary on Tuesday.
After a question from Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, Parry interrupted to ask a couple more of his own. When Parry’s questions were answered, Rep. Leon Lillie, DFL-North St. Paul, complained that Parry kept interjecting his own questions and remarks into exchanges between testifiers and other legislators on the panel, asking if that was common procedure in the Senate.
“When you’re chair, it is,” Parry said flatly.
“So all’s good and fair in love and war, and the Senate?” Lillie asked.
“I guess that’s what it is,” Parry said.
“It’s probably a blessing you’re down to your last three meetings,” Lillie said, drawing another laugh from the gallery. “I figure you’ll milk this for three days of per diem perhaps.”
A moment later, Parry banged the gavel and called a recess, pausing briefly to shoot a glare Lillie’s way.
After the intermission, emotions cooled, and legislators got back into the numbers game. One break in the analysis of the contract’s fine print came when Sen. James Metzen apologized for being late, explaining that he’d had a doctor’s appointment, then wondered why he’d had to come to the Capitol at all.
“I don’t know what we’re talking about here today,” Metzen said. “You’ve got a very, very modest 2 percent increase, so the way I see it — it’s only for six months — what are we doing here?”
Later, as the hearing approached the two-hour mark, Metzen said he had learned “how to count,” and that “on this subcommittee, it looks to me — I’m not sure — but it looks to me like it’s six to four.” Metzen’s numbers, a reference to the Republicans’ numerical advantage in subcommittee membership, predicted a party-line vote that would reject the new union agreements.
In between bouts of sniping and sarcasm, the proceedings offered a relatively thorough examination of the contracts’ terms. The deals, ratified by both unions on July 30 after 18 months of negotiation, would provide public employees with an across-the-board 2 percent salary increase, beginning January 2, 2013. Employees were scheduled to receive lesser increases in salary and benefits under the existing state contracts.
Downey noted at one point that the issue before the panel “isn’t whether to provide state employees an increase, it’s whether to provide a $46 million increase or a $59 million increase.” Downey was clearly displeased with these limited options. He and other Republican committee members grilled Barbara Holmes, an assistant commissioner at Minnesota Management and Budget, who had acted as the state’s chief negotiator in the contract discussions. Holmes explained that, while the contracts included salary increases, those pay hikes would be partly offset by an increase in out-of-pocket employee health care costs totaling around $7.9 million annually.
Parry ultimately adjourned the hearing without holding a vote, saying the subcommittee would reconvene for an “up or down” vote on August 23, the day before the Legislature’s flood relief special session is tentatively scheduled to take place. If the subcommittee votes to ratify the contracts, the deal would take effect provisionally, until it’s approved by the full Legislature. (Here’s a House Research backgrounder on the subcommittee’s powers in ratifying or rejecting contracts.)
Parry had scheduled a press conference regarding his congressional campaign for shortly after the hearing, but Senate GOP media staffer Pete Winiecki subsequently informed the waiting press corps that the media availability was cancelled.