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State union says budget plan would save $356 million

A proposal from a state workers' union to trim $356 million from the state budget went to Gov. Tim Pawlenty in May.

The union, the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, is still waiting to hear from the governor.

"We hand-delivered it and called for a meeting," MAPE Executive Director Jim Monroe said last week. "We're still waiting for that meeting -- I'm threatening to follow him around the country."

Monroe said state workers took up the challenge after hearing Republican Pawlenty in April on one of his weekly radio shows. The governor said that "the public employee unions, and the spenders and the DFL should quit coming up with the tax increase of the week or the day idea and focus on how we can reduce our spending."

"We took him at his word," Monroe said last week in an interview, as MAPE officials are now traversing the state to meet with local union members and the media.

Pawlenty, saying the 2009 Legislature didn't complete its work by giving him a budget with no tax increases, signed into law spending bills that caused a $3 billion gap between revenues and spending. He unilaterally balanced the budget with line-item vetoes, spending shifts and unallotment of allocated spending.

Saving $356 million won't alone save the state's budget, Monroe admits, but it will help take away less in Local Government Aid to cities, or would prevent most of the General Assistance Medical Care program for the state's poorest adults from being unallotted and eliminated.

"This does not lessen services," he said.

MAPE made suggested state budget savings that at least total $356 million for the biennium. They include:

- The state of Minnesota fails to college $120 million a year from its vendors and contractors, uncollected revenue labeled as "accounts receivable." It amounts to $240 million for the biennium.

"There's a whole lot of uncollected state revenues," he said. "There is no consistency in the state Legislature related to the various agencies and MnSCU facilities as to how long something stays on the books before it's written off as bad debt or uncollectible."

In 2007, $120 million was found in uncollected accounts receivable, including $18 million to the $18 million in unemployment compensation tax payments to the state Department of Commerce that businesses failed to pay.

- Streamline state agencies with bloated management, by using the same 15 percent management to staff ratio that the state demands for grants to non-profit agencies.

MAPE studies show a manager to staff ratio of 56 percent for the Workers Comp Court of Appeals, 50 percent for the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, 45 percent for the Higher Education Services Office and 33 percent for the Finance Department. The Commerce Department has a 24 percent ratio, the Natural Resources Department 19 percent and the Transportation Department 18 percent.

Bringing all state agencies to 15 percent or less could save $110 million for the two-year state budget.

- Replace outside contractors with state workers to save money. In one program alone, $3.4 million could be saved each year by using state electrical inspectors rather than contracting out the service.

Overall, the state paid $1.9 billion for outside contracts in 2008. "We absolutely don't build roads," Monroe said of the need for outside contractors, but there are a lot of jobs that can be done cheaper by state employees.

MAPE also wants state lawmakers and the governor to look at other areas where trims could be made, such as looking at the $13 million spent for out-of-state travel by state workers.

"All the governor has to do is tell the agencies we aren't saying no unnecessary travel, just make it transparent so that people have to justify it," Monroe said. "One was a multi-week trip to Brazil in the wintertime with no trade agreement coming back."

Pawlenty early in the session talked of freezing union wages or even furloughing state workers with no pay. Neither was done.

The key to a new two-year salary pact is no change in insurance benefits, Monroe said, while there will be performance-based pay increases.

And while 22 states have furloughs, Minnesota unions fought it off and it is part of the union contract not to furlough.

When state workers are furloughed, the state could lose about $4.3 million from forced reimbursement the state would have to pay the federal government as 60 percent of MAPE jobs are federally funded.

"The public needs to hold the governor accountable when he makes a statement everybody has to sit around the table and tighten their belt to figure out what bills to pay," Monroe said. "Governor, we've shown you how to take $350 million right out of the bill and puts some on the income side and put it right on the bottom line."

People want the services, he said.

"Government in Minnesota is not bloated," Monroe said. "We're the 10th leanest state government in the country. If you lump everything together -- all the state colleges and technical colleges -- we're still 29th. We're not at the top by a long shot."

Minnesota has about the same number of state employees as Mississippi, but double the population.

"Unfortunately, Minnesota is going to become the Louisiana or Mississippi of the north if we keep going the way we are," Monroe said.