After going into special session, the 2017 Minnesota Legislature adjourned May 26 after taking care of unfinished business from 2016: passing both a bonding bill and a transportation bill. State workers also retained their union contracts and newly won paid parental leave.
But the Republican-controlled Legislature inserted objectionable policy provisions in funding bills which DFL Governor Mark Dayton said he accepted only to avoid a budget stalemate and a government shutdown.
In response, Dayton used his line item veto to eliminate funding for legislative operations and staff — a bargaining chip to force the Legislature back for a special session to repeal policy measures he opposes. That dispute has now gone to the courts.
Dayton also used his veto power to block a “preemption” bill that would have barred local communities from enacting local minimum wage standards and sick leave policies.
Trades welcome bonding bill
Building Trades leaders welcomed the bonding and transportation bills as job-creating investments in state infrastructure, even as they hoped for better versions of both bills.
The $987.9 million bonding bill will fund public works projects throughout the state, including investments in facilities at the state’s university systems, the state security hospital in St. Peter, water infrastructure, local road improvement grants and numerous other projects.
“We are happy that the Legislature completed the work they started last year,” said Harry Melander, president of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council. “We’re always grateful and thankful to Minnesota legislators to invest in Minnesota’s infrastructure. By doing that, it creates a heck of a lot of jobs for Building Trades members throughout the state.”
“We’re pleased that they did a good-sized bonding bill,” agreed Kyle Makarios, director of government affairs for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. “We’re happy they got it done after the failure to get it done last year.”
Makarios noted that passing a bonding bill this year puts the Legislature back on the normal cycle to take up a bonding bill next year (bonding typically takes place in the even-numbered years).
Transportation bill: two views
“We’re happy that the Legislature after years and years of not being able to pass a transportation bill passed a bill that puts real significant money into roads and transit,” Makarios said.
“It doesn’t include all the funding mechanisms we hoped for,” he said, but “it’s an important, real step forward.”
The final transportation bill did not include immediate drastic cuts to Metro Transit that transit advocates vigorously opposed.
That positive outcome, however, didn’t satisfy state Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, a strong transportation and transit proponent. The final bill, he said, “zeroes out transit beginning in 2020. We’re going to have deep cuts in transit.”
He also criticized the bill for relying on funding shifted from the state’s general fund, rather than creating new revenue streams. “The way to fund transportation is through a gas tax or a license tab fee,” he said.
“This bill is a missed opportunity to solve the problem,” Hornstein said.
Licensure policy opposed by teachers
One policy measure inserted into the education budget bill is strongly opposed by Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union.
In a statement, Education Minnesota said Republican-backed changes to teacher licensure “would significantly lower standards.
“This bill devalues the profession, allows people with little or no training to teach our children and makes it harder to recruit and retain quality educators,” Education Minnesota said.
“Teacher licensing standard changes… give school districts too much authority to hire people with much less teacher training,” the union said. “People can receive unlimited teaching licenses without any teacher preparation training — essentially allowing someone to teach for their entire career without any training on how to teach.”
Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said she welcomed Dayton’s move to cut the Legislature’s funding in order to win repeal of the new teaching licensure policies.
Public sector unions beat back attacks
Like the teachers, AFSCME and MAPE – the state’s two largest public employee unions – also vigorously opposed proposed policy changes sought by the Republican majorities in the Legislature.
“AFSCME members beat back a sneak attack on our collective bargaining rights during the special session,” reported Jennifer Munt, public affairs director for Council 5. “While negotiating the bill to fund state agencies, Republicans slipped in a poison pill to cripple the right of state employees to bargain wage increases and health insurance. The change would have forced us to bargain with the Legislature, making it nearly impossible to get a contract.”
“Minnesota is not Wisconsin because Senator Tom Bakk, our union brother, helped us remove the poison pill,” Munt continued. “We preserved the Public Employment Labor Relations Act. Without that strong protection, employers like [Wisconsin Governor] Scott Walker could do just about anything they want to public workers.”
Some legislators also sought to deprive state workers of newly negotiated paid parental leave. But both houses ratified a memorandum of agreement for the leave in late May and the MOU remains in effect despite Dayton’s veto of the overall funding bill.
The policy provides up to six weeks of paid parental leave for state employees who have babies or adopt children.
On June 8, MAPE members held a celebration of the policy, noting the positive effect it will have on workplaces, families and communities.
“It’s really important to be proud of the place you’re working for, and I was and am very proud to work for the state of Minnesota,” said Shya Tran, a state employee who was able to utilize the leave after the birth of her daughter, Quinn.
Looking to 2018
“The special session made it clear that workers must unite to elect a pro-worker governor and House in 2018,” Munt said. “Our wages, benefits and rights depend on it.”
Munt and other union representatives criticized Republican lawmakers for implementing tax breaks for wealthy Minnesotans and corporations while failing to adequately invest in health care, education and other needs.
Adapted from an article that appeared in the Minneapolis Labor Review.