The 2012 Legislative session is now halfway over, and I wanted to take this opportunity to bring you up to date on our activities at the Capitol.
While the Constitutional deadline for ending the session is not until May 21st, there is a strong likelihood that lawmakers will try to get out of town before then, perhaps even as soon as Easter. There are several reasons for this. First, new redistricting maps have been released and many legislators find themselves in altered legislative districts with new residents and new territories to represent. Being that this is an election year, they will be anxious to get back to their districts to start door knocking and campaigning. Secondly, Capitol staffing and operations budgets are stretched thin, particularly in the Senate. It is speculated that the Senate will literally run out of money to fund Capitol operations by mid-April. As such, there is financial pressure to end sooner rather than later to avoid going into the red with their self-imposed budgets.
RIGHT TO WORK
Our major focus has been to defeat the Right to Work (RTW) constitutional amendment. RTW would cripple all unions by allowing individuals working in represented positions to refuse to join a union and prohibit a union from collecting fair share fees. This would allow them to be free riders and not pay for benefits they receive. In RTW states, people make an average of $6,000 a year less than in non-RTW states, have lower educational achievement, fewer benefits, and lower standards of living.
We mobilized our members throughout the state on this issue. Our efforts are paying off. I was chosen as one of only ten testifiers to present labor’s arguments against the bill (S.F. 1705 – Thompson/H.F. 2140 – Drazkowski) at a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, March 12th. Over 1,500 union workers rallied that day with scores of IAFF members in attendance. The bill passed out of that committee on a 7-6 vote. Senator Bill Ingebrigtsten was the only Republican on the committee to vote with us and against the amendment. Since that vote, a total of three Senate Republicans have publicly come out against RTW. A fourth Senator is needed to ensure the votes are there to kill it. All 30 Democrats are against RTW.
We have worked very closely with the AFL-CIO and other unions on House Republicans. We have the support of at least twelve House Republicans, perhaps as many as 20. If they stay true to their word, there are not enough votes to pass the bill in the House of Representatives. Several attempts to bring the bill to the floor have failed, most recently on the evening of Thursday, March 22nd. We believe we have the bill tied up in the House committee, but we must remain active and vigilant. The constitutional amendment would crush unions across the board. We are adamantly opposed to a police and fire exclusion and we have advised lawmakers of that fact. RTW is the greatest threat that we as union members face. This is the defining issue of the session and our careers. I, along with all our state and local officers and our lobbying team, have devoted virtually all our efforts to stop this bill. We will focus on this every day until the end of session. Please keep up the pressure and continue to call your legislators to tell them to vote against RTW.
Several other key issues remain on the table at this point. The big focus for this year will be the passage of a bonding bill to fund state construction and infrastructure projects. Governor Dayton has proposed $775 million in bonding for this year, and the Republicans are pushing for a much smaller package. The initial House proposal includes only $275 in bonding projects, with an additional $220 million to restore and update the State Capitol building. Much negotiating remains to be done on the overall size of the bonding bill and which projects will be included. The Vikings stadium issue also remains unresolved at this point. A proposal to finance a new stadium at the current Metrodome site has been negotiated by Governor Dayton, Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak, and the Vikings. However, neither the City of Minneapolis nor the legislature has approved the deal, and its future remains uncertain. Republicans are also pressing for a series of controversial Constitutional amendments dealing with social issues such as Voter ID, abortion funding, “Right to Work”, and requiring super-majority votes to approve tax increases. A proposed amendment banning gay marriage was passed last year and will already be on the ballot in November. Constitutional amendments are not acted on by the Governor – once passed by the House and Senate, they automatically appear on the ballot and are not subject to a veto.
The following is an update on the issues we are lobbying on and monitoring at the Capitol this year:
Protect Back Pay, Economic Benefits During Contract Negotiations. The MPFF opposes H.F. 1974/S.F. 2078 authored by Rep. Steve Drazkowski and Senator Mike Parry. The bill would prohibit an employer and arbitrator from awarding back pay in a contract settlement. If passed into law, no pay raise could take effect once a contract expires. This would give employers an incentive to stall settlements. Even worse, the bill prohibits the continuation of economic benefits (e.g. step increases, health insurance increases, cost of living adjustments, longevity, etc.) beyond the terms of the contract expiration. H.F. 1974 has passed the Government Operations and State Government Finance Committees and is awaiting action on the House floor. The Senate bill was passed by the State Government Innovations and Veterans Committee and is now awaiting action on the Senate floor. I testified against the bill in committee and we will continue to fight against this legislation.
Protect Local Government Aid (LGA) to Cities. The February budget forecast shows a surplus of $323 million for the remainder of this year. This is on top of the $876 million that was announced in November. Of the $323 million, $93 million comes from increased revenues, and $230 million comes from lower than expected expenditures, mainly in the health care arena. While having a surplus is good news for the state, it will likely not result in increased spending for LGA or other issues since this money is already spoken for. Under the budget agreement passed last year, all surplus funds must be used to replenish budget reserves, cash flow accounts, and the K-12 education shift. The November surplus money was used to backfill the cash flow account, and $5 million of the February surplus topped off the state’s budget reserve, and those two funds are now made whole (at least for the time being.) This left $318 million to begin repaying the school aid shift. After this action, $2.4 billion still remains to repay the school aid shifts.
The forecast also slightly lowers the projected deficit for the 2014-15 biennium from $1.3 billion to $1.1 billion.The forecast also does not include roughly $1.06 billion in inflation.The consensus among the budget experts is that while the economy is slowly recovering and the financial outlook seems to be improving, we are still a long way from returning to the days of actual budget surpluses.
Legislation (S.F. 2448 – Ortman) setting 2013 LGA levels at the same amount as cities received in 2012 has been introduced.The Senate Tax Committee heard the proposal, and it may be included in the Senate’s omnibus tax proposal.Other bills put forth earlier in the year to use LGA money to pay for cuts in business taxes appear to have been killed, at least for now.The MPFF continues to oppose any cuts in state aid to cities and urges that LGA be prioritized for public safety purposes.
Protect Public Employee Pensions. The omnibus pension bill contains no reduction in benefits. There are a number of routine pension issues, including the Virginia Fire Department Relief Association with a modest benefit to fully consolidate with PERA P&F. A proposal to modestly lower the assumption rate of return from 8.5% to approximately 8.31% was approved by the Pension Commission. On Friday, March 23rd, the Senate Government Operations Committee voted to reduce that to 8.0%. We, along with all other public pensions, oppose that change. We will fight this issue to change the Pension Commission’s recommendations.
Fire Safety Account. As noted above, the state’s budget surplus will not translate into increased expenditures this year. However, unappropriated funds remain in the Fire Safety Account. Governor Dayton has recommended to appropriate $4.5 million in the account for distribution by the Fire Service Advisory Committee. We support that effort and will fight to get funds from the Fire Safety Account released.
Public Employee Insurance Program (PEIP) Moratorium. PEIP is a state program that offers health insurance to public employers. It has proven to provide lower cost options or force private insurance companies to offer more affordable health care for public employees. There are at least three bills to stop PEIP from being an option for public employees to obtain health insurance through the state. We oppose all of these bills. I and our lobbyists have testified against these bills and are working with other labor unions to prevent the moratorium from being passed into law.
Labor Arbitration Bill. Last year, we opposed a bill to amend the Public Employees Labor Relations Act (PELRA) to mandate that arbitrators had to accept the City’s inability to pay as the predominate factor in arbitrations. As with other such bills, we are working with public sector labor unions and Governor Dayton’s office to oppose such legislation.
The following are bills which we are not actively lobbying on but have come up during the session. We monitor such issues since they may directly or indirectly affect fire fighters across the state.
Fallen Firefighter Memorial Day (H.F. 2365/S.F. 1492). Current state law designates that the first Sunday in October is Fallen Firefighters Memorial Day in honor of the firefighters who have lost their lives in the line of duty. This bill amends the law to change the date for Minnesota’s observance of Fallen Firefighters Memorial Day to the last Sunday in September. The change ensures that Minnesota’s day does not conflict with national events. The bill has passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the House.
Moratorium on establishing new fire departments. S.F. 2148/H.F. 2572 would establish a moratorium on the creation of new fire departments. It is in response to a recent incident in Richmond, Minnesota where several townships created a new fire department after not being able to come to an agreement with the existing city department in the area. The first fire call to the new department resulted in a lengthy response time and uncoordinated effort, and the building burned to the ground. S.F. 2148 was awaiting final action on the Senate floor, but the bill has been recalled by its author, meaning it is likely dead for the year.
Emergency services museum. Legislation has been introduced (H.F. 1763 – Davids) that would use constitutionally dedicated Legacy Arts and Cultural Heritage Funds to build a veterans and emergency services museum in Rochester. There already is a Fire Fighter museum in Northeast Minneapolis, and we will monitor this issue to ensure that any potential state funding for that facility is not diverted to the proposed Rochester museum.
EMS Licensing Standards. This bill (H.F. 2128/S.F. 1876) updates terminology related to individuals who are registered or certified to provide emergency medical services. It expands the types of conduct for which the board can take disciplinary action. The bill specifies that education standards must meet the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration's National EMS Education Standards. The bill has passed out of committees and is awaiting action on the floor in both bodies.
Cost Effectiveness of Fire and Emergency Medical Services. Legislation has been introduced (S.F. 2197 – Robling) which proposes to create a task force to study “more cost effective” ways to deliver fire and emergency medical services. This is clearly an attempt to cut full-time firefighter wages, benefits and jobs. The bill was not introduced in the House and is unlikely to go anywhere this year.
Definition of Salary. S.F. 2380 (Chamberlain) and H.F. 2179 (Kiffmeyer) is a bill that would change the definition of “salary” used to determine pension benefits by excluding overtime, shift differential, uniform allowance and other forms of “irregular” compensation. This bill did not make deadlines, but we will continue to fight against any legislation which would negatively impact the way our benefits are determined.
So far, we have seen success with Governor Dayton’s support for the Fire Safety Account. We have fought back bad labor bills. Fortunately, the state’s improved financial situation has meant we aren’t under the gun on funding. However, the old adage that no person’s life, liberty or property is safe as long as the legislature is in session is still true. We will be on guard until the last day.