During a recent news conference on the state economic forecast, Gov. Pawlenty praised a bargaining unit in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system for agreeing on a new contract that maintains current salary levels. Pawlenty repeated his preference that other unions do the same.
"We're hopeful, in fact we expect that cities, counties, school districts across the state, the state government, will do all that they can to negotiate a wage freeze for government employees across Minnesota," he said. "If we can do that, that won't eliminate, but it will minimize government employee layoffs." Union leaders say they understand the state's financial problems, but they say Pawlenty doesn't have the authority to dictate what should be decided at the bargaining table.
"Basically, I think the governor needs to step back on this issue," said Jim Monroe executive director of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees.
Monroe's union represents 12,500 state workers. He said the call for a pay freeze makes a good sound bite, but doesn't help the bargaining process. He wants the governor to stop trying to negotiate with public employees through the news media. Monroe also wants the governor to stop claiming a pay freeze would save jobs.
"What's crazy about that kind of a statement, any compensation savings when we're in as much financial trouble as the state of Minnesota is in, will not protect personnel," he said. "Those savings will then be diverted to another area of the budget to plug that hole in the dike."
Officials with the statewide teachers union have a similar disagreement with the governor. Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, said he's told local negotiators to ask for proof if their school board counterparts claim a pay freeze will save jobs.
“We're not going to come out and say people should take a freeze. That doesn't make sense.”Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota.
Dooher said there's pressure on teachers to accept a pay freeze. But he's optimistic school boards will bargain with their teachers in good faith.
"We have over 300 locals throughout the state," he said, "and each one of them has an individual agreement. And they need to bargain for what they need and they need to decide with the money that is in that local district how are they going to divide that up and what are they going to put that into salary and benefits. So, we're not going to come out and say people should take a freeze. That doesn't make sense."
School districts won't know how much money they have to work with until state lawmakers finish the budget in May.
Kirk Schneidawind of the Minnesota School Boards Association said it will be difficult for local school leaders to pay their employees what they deserve if lawmakers decide to cut K-12 education funding.
"We've got to rely on the local school board and the local bargaining units to understand the economic circumstances that we're in today. And gathering all that information, looking into the future and based on the revenues and we've got to make the best decisions for the districts and their employee groups," he said. "It's going to be tough, there's no question about it."
Legislation introduced in the House and Senate would try to take the pay freeze issue from the bargaining table and put it into state statute.
Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, the bill's chief author, said current law might prevent such a mandate, but he's willing to make the necessary changes. Michel said a pay freeze at all levels of government would save roughly $1 billion, and prevent that amount of reductions in jobs, programs or services.
"Whether it's something we mandate from the state level or something that we urge, the fact is policy makers at all levels, all across the country are considering this," he said. "Not because they want to, but because they have to."
Michel is also pushing for legislators and other elected officials to do their part to save money with a pay cut. Neither of his bills has yet received a hearing in the DFL-controlled Senate.