Loud union dispute joins legislative budget debate
ST. PAUL — Heather Falk fanned herself Saturday in the hot, muggy Minnesota Capitol building as legislators gradually worked toward finishing the state budget and adjourning for the year.
The Cloquet child care provider joined a few hundred others who exercised their lungs and freedom of speech in the Capitol, awaiting a hot House debate about whether child care providers and personal care attendants should join unions.
The relatively small crowd, compared to 2,800 who turned out for Monday’s Senate gay marriage debate, made enough noise to be heard even in remote areas of the Capitol.
While demonstrators on both sides of the issue chanted, legislators plowed through bills that help make up the state’s $38 billion budget for the next two years.
The Senate on Saturday passed a bill funding state health programs for the elderly and disabled, approved a measure changing some transportation policies and took up a variety of smaller bills.
The House began the weekend passing several routine bills, preparing to take up a natural resources and agriculture spending measure, setting the stage for a public education finance bill and looking forward to the union proposal late Saturday or early today.
With Minnesota legislators facing a Monday night constitutional deadline to adjourn, they planned to work through Saturday night, return at midday today and put in a full Monday.
The $16 billion education funding bill, the biggest single spending area of state government, is a keystone for Democrats who control the House and Senate.
But if education is a key political issue this weekend, noise bouncing off the Capitol’s marble walls came from child care workers.
"I still think my voice should be heard," Falk said, sweat dripping off her face, even though all in the Capitol knew the Democratic-controlled House most likely would follow the Senate and approve allowing child care workers and personal care attendants to join unions.
Falk is a longtime opponent to the unionization effort and predicted that once it becomes law, she and her colleagues will challenge the issue in court.
Another child care provider, Lynn Barten of Alexandria, was thrilled that representatives appeared poised to approve the unionization proposal.
"It’s kind of a historic day," she said, standing a few feet from Falk.
Associations that represent child care workers have not been effective at the Legislature, Barten said. Unions are better capable of lobbying lawmakers for more money and better regulations, she said.
She said she understands why some would oppose the idea: "Anything new is scary."
Also standing just outside the House chamber was child care worker Terrie Boyd of Detroit Lakes, holding a sign asking "what part of unconstitutional didn’t you understand?"
Union opponents say it is not constitutional to let business owners such as child care providers join unions. That is a provision only for employees, she said.
"This is my business," Boyd added. "I am not an employee."
Boyd and Falk said most child care workers in their areas oppose unionization.
Democrats back two unions that want to sign up child care workers and personal care attendants. Unions say they can do a better job of negotiating state subsidies and rules that govern the services.
Also on Saturday, a transportation bill passed, but without a provision the House and Senate earlier approved to raise some speed limits from 55 mph to 60.
Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, long has worked to raise speed limits and was upset that a House-Senate conference committee dropped the higher speed limit.
Also in the transportation bill is a provision that makes it legal for a bicycle to have a horn or bell, which is not allowed now.
House and Senate members on Saturday approved coming back for the 2014 legislative session Feb. 25.