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Senate bill would slash state workforce

Several hundred American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) members fill all three floors of the Capitol Rotunda March 22 in a show of solidarity against various pieces of legislation the union feels undermines their collective bargaining rights. Photo by David J. Oakes

By Don Davis

State Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL -- Many state agencies would sustain budget cuts of up to 20 percent under a Senate-passed bill, which eliminates 15 percent of state workers and freezes wages for those remaining on the payroll.

Surviving state workers would be required to pay more for their health insurance and they would lost their right to use unions to bargain.

The bill, which passed 36-29, is one of several that lawmakers are considering this week and next as they write a $34 billion, two-year budget.

Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, said his bill "will reduce spending and bring those innovative ideas to state government."

Republicans say cuts are needed to plug a $5 billion budget deficit, but Democrats counter that those workers are needed.

"Our workers, government workers, are being asked to balance the budget on their backs," Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-St. Paul, said. "It is job killer. It is the wrong direction. It is not in touch with Minnesota values."

Democrats said state workers who average $38,000 annual salaries would pay more than $6,000 more for medical expenses under the bill.

But Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, said that for people like him who seldom go to the doctor, the insurance changes are good. He said a good provision is to offer preventative health care at no charge.

The Senate bill chops 68 percent of the state's Minnesota Public Radio state funding and 20 percent of public television's aid.

While most state agencies funded under the bill are cut 15 percent, State Auditor Rebecca Otto, a Democrat, would see a 20 percent reduction in her office.

Senators voted to preserve most Veterans Affairs Department and Natural Guard funding. The bill adds 30 jobs to veterans' homes, including staffing a new wing at the Fergus Falls facility.

The House version of the bill is due to be debated next week.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.