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Minn. Bills To Curtail Public Worker Pay Get Look

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(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Taking away Minnesota teachers’ right to strike was approved Monday by a legislative committee just hours after another Republican-backed plan was introduced that would require public workers to pay more toward their retirement pensions.

Supporters said the plans are part of needed government reforms as lawmakers try to close a $5 billion state budget shortfall. Democrats, including Gov. Mark Dayton, criticized the plans and compared them to controversial legislation in Wisconsin that stripped most public employees of collective bargaining rights.

On an 8-5 party-line vote, the Senate State Government and Innovation Committee approved a GOP-backed plan that would allow teachers and public school administrators to negotiate contracts only during summer breaks. Supporters said it would financially pay off in the long-run by allowing school districts to avoid financial penalties levied by the state when contracts aren’t settled by a January deadline.

A bill introduced a few hours earlier would make state, city, county and school district employees pay more into their retirement pensions by cutting the government’s contribution by 3 percent across the board. Backers said it would save the state $50 million in the next two years.

“We are facing financial realities and realities that have to be addressed,” said Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Burnsville, who’s involved in several GOP bills aimed at the public workforce.

Under the teacher contract bill, negociations would be put on hold until the following summer if a summer break ends without a deal. If talks drag on beyond then without resolution, the two sides would enter into binding arbitration.

Supporters said labor unrest is distracting to students. Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, noted a 2005 strike in his district where teachers in Crosby-Ironton were off the job for two months during the school year.

“It was dramatic and it certainly was not about the children,” Gazelka said. “They were like a pawn in the middle of this chess match and they suffered greatly. Arbitration would have been far, far better.”

Democrats noted there have only been three full-blown teacher strikes in Minnesota since 1995. They said teachers are professionals who can keep labor disputes out of the classroom.

“I think what’s really being done here is trying to cut the legs out from under collective bargaining,” said Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights.

Jim Smola, a teacher and union leader from Dakota County, said the bill would be worse for classrooms than the possibility of a rare teachers’ strike.

“I believe this bill would serve to undermine morale by artificially dragging out and stalling the negotiations process,” he said.

Republicans have presented several proposals to trim public workers’ pay and benefits to bring them in line with private sector employees. The proposed pension contribution cut would apply to all state and local workers except public safety employees including firefighters and police.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Gretchen Hoffman of Vergas, said as a private business owner she’s had to take similar steps with her own employees.

“All we’re asking is to have the employees contribute to their own retirement,” Hoffman said.

Dayton has avoided issuing direct veto threats against specific bills. But at a press conference Monday, he said the GOP pension proposal “would go far beyond what Wisconsin is proposing.” And he reaffirmed his support for collective bargaining rights for government employees.

“Those agreements are contracts, legal obligations of both parties and they need to be honored,” Dayton said. “The right to negotiate changes to those is something that both parties have and should not be taken away unilaterally by some kind of outside authority.”

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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