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House bill to fund bureaucracy freezes wages, cuts cars

St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) - Hold the phone, park the car and forget about a raise. That's the message the House sends to state workers with a $412 million finance bill that limits government-issued cell phones, reduces the vehicle fleet and freezes employee wages and health benefits for the next two years. It also would curb employees' ability to strike.

The House approved the bill 71-62 late Thursday night after more than 10 hours of debate, including an hours-long filibuster by DFLers who tried, unsuccessfully, to kill an amendment that would prohibit the state from ever agreeing to extend benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian employees in future union negotiations. They recited poems, told family stories and slowly read lists of hundreds of Minnesota companies that offer the benefits.

Rep. Bill Haas, whose committee drafted the overall bill, said it would change state government right down to the way it buys paper clips and other supplies.

"The way we ran government yesterday cannot be the way we run it today or tomorrow," said Haas, R-Champlin.

It's sure to be one of the most controversial budget bills as negotiations between the GOP House, DFL Senate and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty commence. The employee pay and health care provisions will be the flashpoints.

The bill bans salary increases - other than for promotions - and it prohibits the state from kicking in more money than it does now for health premiums. With rising costs, that means state workers would shoulder a greater share of their health costs.

Jim Monroe, the leader of one public employee union, said some workers could see health premiums go up as much as $3,000 a year.

Another clause in the bill would bar strikes over the lack of pay increases.

"This has gone from insanity to whatever is worse than insanity," Monroe said.

Defending the pay changes for civil servants, Haas said private-sector employees have endured stagnant wages and benefits for years.

The Senate version, approved Tuesday, lacks the wage freeze. It would roll back recent pay raises for some top officers - the secretary of state, attorney general and state auditor - and cut pay for the Legislature and other state elected officials.

Haas said the House didn't cut legislators' pay because their annual base pay has been at $31,140 since 1999.

The House bill would trim the government bureaucracy more than Pawlenty proposed, by $72 million. A direct comparison of the House and Senate bills was not available.

Compared with Pawlenty's plan, the House bill chops the attorney general's budget by an additional $5 million - bringing the total cut to 25 percent. It's a much bigger reduction than any other constitutional office. Attorney General Mike Hatch is the only DFLer elected to such an office.

Ken Peterson, a top aide to Hatch, said the office might not be able to offer as much legal assistance to counties on murder and gang prosecutions, sexual predator cases and drunken driving violations.

Another difference is a House initiative to reap $5.5 million by selling some state land.

Other features include:

-Expanded gambling. The bill adds "tipboards" to the list of allowable charitable gambling. The boards are similar to pull tabs, but a winning card depends on the outcome of sports events. The maximum prize would be $500. Rep. Jim Rhodes, R-St. Louis Park, said it could generate $20 million a year for the state and five times that much for charitable organizations.

-Political fees. Lobbyists would have to pay a $400 registration fee every other year, although they would have to report their spending less often. Political candidates would pay between $250 and $1,000 to register.

-Senate jabs. The House bill revokes the prime parking spots senators have in front of the Capitol, pares back their housing stipends and reduces their daily food allowances. Senate per diems would go from $66 to $56, which is the same as House members receive.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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