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Domestic deal-breaker
By Michael Khoo
Minnesota Public Radio
February 14, 2002

House Republicans have sent up a warning flag that state workers contracts negotiated last fall could be in jeopardy. The House passed a resolution Wednesday night on a mostly party-line vote to reject or modify agreements that extend health benefits to the same-sex partners of state workers. Although the resolution is strictly advisory, binding legislation was also approved in a committee later in the evening.

The resolution passed the House floor convincingly with 10 DFLers joining nearly all House Republicans to register their disapproval of the same-sex domestic partner benefits. The measure was sponsored by Rep. Dave Bishop, R-Rochester, who characterized the action as a warning shot across the bow.

"The purpose of it, the resolution, is to attempt to persuade the bargaining parties to take another look at the provisions of the contract and to particularly reject the provision for same-sex domestic partner benefits," Bishop said.

Bishop says the domestic partner language is vague and extend benefits people of the same sex who live together yet don't share a romantic relationship. He says that could lead to lawsuits from opposite-sex roommates who wouldn't enjoy those advantages.

Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, says the resolution is nothing short of mean-spirited. The Minneapolis DFLer is the only openly lesbian state lawmaker.

"I want to say this is about a contract. But, boy, you sure made it clear that it's also about taking away people's rights to go to the funerals of their loved ones. And taking away the rights of people to take care of their sick ones. And I don't think there's any vagueness at all about what you're doing about that," Clark said.

During earlier committee hearings on the resolution, both of the state's two largest employee unions criticized the measure as an undue intrusion into the collective bargaining process between the state and the unions.

Several DFL lawmakers said the same thing during the House floor debate. But Republicans noted that legislators have statutory authority to reject contracts, and Rep. Mike Osskopp, R-Lake City, reminded his colleagues that the House voted last year to prohibit same-sex benefits. He likened that vote to instructions from a company's management to its negotiators not to include the benefits.

"Our point person - the administration - in error, stuffed it in the contract. The union should have known better. The administration should have known better. And management is reminding its point person and the union of what it said last May: No," Osskopp said.

The amendment, however, was eventually stripped from legislation during a House-Senate conference committee. The House eventually approved the bill without the reference to same-sex benefits. If the House follows through on its threat to torpedo the contracts, it will force the Ventura administration and the unions back to the bargaining table, and could jeopardize health benefits while those negotiations take place.

Employee Relations Commissioner Julien Carter, who represented the state during last year's contract talks, says despite the rumblings from GOP leaders, he's not willing to reopen the contract discussion.

"We have an agreement with these unions. It was through some of the most difficult bargaining and the largest strike in state history. We believe that these are fair, affordable, and equitable contracts. And I don't know what we think we would do differently or achieve by going back to the table," Carter said.

Carter notes that the resolution, by itself, carries no force of law. But a binding piece of legislation - containing identical language - is also moving through the House. And last night, the Government Operations Committee recommended that legislation for full passage also.

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