In an unusual move, the Minnesota House approved labor contracts negotiated with state employee unions, after removing health benefits for same-sex domestic partners. Senate DFL leaders support the benefits, and Gov. Ventura called the House action 'homophobic.'
The House voted 78-52 to adopt all parts of the contracts except health benefits for gay and lesbian partners of state employees. The contracts were negotiated by unions and the Ventura administration after a two-week strike last fall. The wage and benefit provisions are already in effect, but must be ratified by the Legislature to remain in force.
Rep. Mark Olson, R-Big Lake, says the House voted twice last year against same-sex benefits - and the Ventura administration pushed to include them in the contracts anyway.
"We were entrapped by what the contracts negotiated. We were entrapped by having to take something that this body clearly stated in the past we would not support," he said.
Olson says the contracts do allow state workers to take sick leave to take care of someone who lives with them, which could be a same-sex partner, and to take bereavement leave when a household member dies.
Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, one of two openly gay legislators, says that gives her little comfort.
"Doesn't feel particularly respectful to me to say that I can't have health care for my partner. I'm one of 'those people' that you referenced, but if she should become ill or God forbid, should she die, I can get off work to go pay my respects. That doesn't feel very respectful," she said.
Other lawmakers who voted against the bill say the Legislature shouldn't pick apart negotiated contracts. The House action appears to have skirted state bargaining law, and some state officials and union leaders question whether it's legal.
Current law requires both the House and Senate to ratify or reject contracts without amending them. The bill passed by the House side-steps that process by rejecting the contracts, and then putting all of their pay and health provisions except same-sex benefits into state law.
"Well, the process that they have used is quite unique, to say the least," said DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe of Erskine, who says the Legislature shouldn't tinker with the collective bargaining process. His bill, which passed the Senate earlier this month, would automatically ratify union contracts unless both the House and Senate vote to reject them.
Moe, who's also running for governor, says he'll try to persuade House leaders to adopt his approach.
"So it seems to me that's still the best thing to do is to get these contracts ratified, particularly in light of the fact that our public employees are being held out there and kind of held hostage and I think that's unfortunate," said Moe.
Gov. Ventura used even harsher words to describe the House action. "It's very homophobic, in my opinion. People are people, and people deserve to be treated equally," he said.
Ventura says he's done with the contracts. He says the House can re-negotiate with the unions. He says members seem to want to nullify an entire contract over 85 people getting benefits.
The Department of Employee Relations says about 85 people have applied for the domestic partner benefits out of a state workforce of about 52,000. The department estimates the cost at $189,000 in contracts totaling $225 million dollars.More from MPR