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Mark Koran (from left), Marion O’Neill, Doug Seaton
Mark Koran (from left), Marion O’Neill, Doug Seaton

Bar Buzz: Lawmakers sue MMB over state employee raises

Correction: This article has been revised to note that James V.F. Dickey is an attorney with the Upper Midwest Law Center.

A pair of state lawmakers are suing the commissioner of Minnesota Management and Budget, seeking a declaratory judgment against the agency for implementing what they assert were illegal state employee pay raises.

The lawsuit says the contract, which went into effect in July 2020, was never ratified and “must cease to be paid.” The agreement included 2.5% cost-of-living increases for all employees with additional merit pay increases for roughly half of state workers.

The suit, filed in Ramsey County District Court by Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, and Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch, seeks a declaratory judgment that former Commissioner Myron Frans’ implementation of the agreement was illegal and asks the court enjoin MMB from further implementing the pay raises.

The suit also seeks a writ of quo warranto preventing current Commissioner Jim Schowalter from carrying out the agreement. Such writs are designed “to correct the usurpation, misuser or nonuser of a public office,” according to the state’s Rules of Administrative Procedure.

The complaint also seeks a monetary award for attorney’s fees and costs.

“This lawsuit merely seeks to restore the legal process that has been in place for as long as public employee collective bargaining has existed in Minnesota,” said lawyer Doug Seaton, who represents the lawmaker plaintiffs. “We look forward to the court overruling and sanctioning MMB’s illegal conduct.”

Seaton, a member of the public interest firm Upper Midwest Law Center, is quoted in a press release. The complaint was signed by James V.F. Dickey, an attorney with the Upper Midwest Law Center.

According to that complaint, the collective bargaining agreement is invalid because it was passed last year by only one chamber of the legislature, the DFL-led Minnesota House. The Senate took up the bill, but amended it with language delaying pay hikes until July 2021. It sent that version back to the House.

But the amended version was never taken up by House. So the two chambers never agreed on a single bill, nor did the governor ever sign one.

Republican legislators at the time questioned the optics of across-the-board pay raises for state employees given the pandemic budgetary impact and widespread layoffs and furloughs in the private sector.

Nonetheless, Frans implemented the contract. According to the Star Tribune, he said that an agency legal review established that lawmakers cannot “unilaterally modify the agreements or plans.” And because they voted to approve the contracts without pay raises, Frans said, the Senate effectively approved them.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, asked to comment on the suit before the start of the legislative session Tuesday, agreed with the agency that “the contract has been ratified.”

“I think their lawsuit is without merit,” he said of the GOP lawmakers who filed it, “and they should focus on something more productive.”

The suit was filed on Dec. 30 and a summons was issued on Jan. 4. The case has been assigned to Ramsey County District Court Judge Laura Nelson. No hearings have been scheduled as yet.

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About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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