Union official says Pawlenty budget would impact BSU

While center-stage focus the next few months rests with the Legislature as it crafts a new two-year state budget, state worker unions behind the scenes start negotiating a new two-year labor contract.

While center-stage focus the next few months rests with the Legislature as it crafts a new two-year state budget, state worker unions behind the scenes start negotiating a new two-year labor contract.

And the pressure to allocate a projected $2 billion state budget surplus to a host of concerns, there is a realization there still isn't enough.

While Gov. Tim Pawlenty in his budget gives state workers a 2 percent increase, that amount also includes increased health premiums, which could mean very few real dollars in state workers' pockets, says Jim Monroe, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees.

And while Pawlenty would increase funding $123 million to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, it's not direct linked to employee salaries.

In fact, Monroe said in an interview last week that state employees at Bemidji State University are already discussing layoff numbers under the governor's budget.


"BSU must cut $5 million by 2010," Monroe said, "with $3 million in the 2008 budget and $1 million each in 2009 and 2010."

MnSCU plans to control the employee cuts through attrition, but Monroe has his doubts. And, with average debt at graduation of $30,000 for MnSCU students, lawmakers can't look to higher tuition, he said.

MAPE and the six bargaining units of the American Federation of State, Municipal and County Employees -- which make up the state's largest unions -- begin talks March 15 with the state for a two-year contract that begins July 1.

It's Monroe's hope that agreement can be found before the Legislature adjourns, that employees wage and benefit changes can be reflected as supplemental funding in the budget, not taken out of set agency budgets as is done now.

"We're still negotiating when the budget's adopted, usually, but this year we'd like to get in front of the cycle," Monroe said. Minnesota for the past 16 years has set budgets before union contracts are settled, forcing departments to pay for any employee raises out of existing budgets and cutting services.

A supplemental budget would spread the employee raises reflected by the new contract to existing department budgets, something not done since the Gov. Rudy Perpich administration, he said.

"We've made a commitment, and AFSCME's agreeable with it, that there's got to be some money for the agencies for salaries," Monroe said. "If you're going to negotiate, you can't keep cannibalizing the resources."

The governor's set aside of 2 percent in the general fund for state worker increases "is smoke and mirrors," says Monroe. "Seven percent of the state payroll costs are actually general fund dollars, everything else comes from dedicated funds or federal funds or fees, all the rest of it.


"For every 10 percent increase in benefits, equals 1 percent increase in payroll," Monroe said, stressing that cash for raises will be tight.

Unions believe talks will be tougher this year, as the state officials might still be burned over the last contract, which was finalized just after the 2005 partial state government shutdown.

State workers struck in 2001, after then-Gov. Jesse Ventura drew the line in the sand and refused to negotiate, Monroe said. In 2003, with the state facing a $4.5 billion budget shortfall, state workers settled with no pay increases over two years, but some insurance increases.

"In 2005, we had the great two weeks in July that shut state government down," he said. "The reason we got a contract as quick as we did is nobody wanted another big blowup, ourselves or the administration."

Workers got a 2 percent pay hike in each year, but basically frozen on insurance benefits. But Monroe believes the administration now might want to play harder, thinking it gave in too soon in 2005.

MAPE is supporting efforts in both the House and Senate for budget continuation language to prevent any future state government shutdown as talks continue.

"You can't allow government to stop," Monroe said. "That shutdown was a fiasco."

MAPE recognizes other needs for the state budget, and supports those as well as making sure state employees receive pay and benefits commensurate to their private sector colleagues.


"Universal health care is going to be a focus for this union until we get there," Monroe said, "proper funding for education at all levels, proper funding for state government."

Other union initiatives before the Legislature include opposing measures that would privatize state services, with Monroe saying that privatization is genearlly more costly than using state professional employees for government services and that privatization generally leads to subsidizing private industry without oversight and control over taxpayer dollars.

Similarly, MAPE is opposed to contracting for services when state union workers are available.

Monroe said MAPE is also concerned with the direction of the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, that after a merger more resources are being used for economic development than for worker job help and retraining.

While Minnesota ranks 34th in the nation in population, it ranks lower than that in the number of state workers per capita, Monroe said. "We're almost with Mississippi, but yet we have a real quality workforce here and it's incumbent upon ourselves as the union, the employers, the governor, instead of slapping the state workforce, to say that we've got a damn good workforce here."

And that means not to continue saying "no new taxes," he added. Increases in state spending versus total growth show that the percentage of government costs has not kept pace.

MAPE represents 26 percent of the state workforce and is the largest single bargaining unit, Monroe said. It represents 11,300 workers in 435 job classifications. It also represents professional employees in 12 cities and one county.

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