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House passes contract bill minus same-sex benefits

By Brian Bakst

Associated Press

ST. PAUL -- In an apparent end-run around state bargaining law, the House passed a bill Friday adopting all parts of negotiated union contracts except a provision that would give health benefits to gay and lesbian partners of public employees.

Technically, the Legislature must ratify or reject contracts on an up-or-down vote. State labor law doesn't give legislators power to amend them. But the House bill, approved 78-52, does just that by trumping the decades-old law.

Eleven Democrats joined 67 Republicans in backing the bill. Four Republicans and 48 DFLers voted against it.

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In effect, the House rejected the contracts Gov. Jesse Ventura's administration forged with state unions. Under the bill, all pay and health provisions except the same-sex domestic partnership portion would be written into law instead.

Administration officials and union leaders have questioned whether the move is legal. The action isn't final because the Senate is moving in a different direction.

Rep. Luanne Koskinen, DFL-Coon Rapids, was outraged by the bill.

"This is an assault on the collective bargaining process and another slap in the face of the working people of Minnesota," she said.

Rep. Dave Bishop, R-Rochester, said health benefits should be blind to sexual orientation.

"I don't believe the law should look into the bedroom," he said. Bishop voted for the bill anyway, saying he had no choice if he wanted to be appointed to any House-Senate conference committee that deals with the contract issue.

Rep. Mark Olson, R-Big Lake, supported the bill. He said Ventura is to blame for offering the benefit despite loud cries from the Legislature advising him against it.

"We were entrapped," he said. "Twice this body sent a message to both parties -- the unions and the administration -- to go out and renegotiate the contracts."

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The contract settlements were reached last fall after a two-week strike by the two largest unions representing state workers, the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees and Council 6 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

AFSCME Executive Director Peter Benner took good and bad news from the vote.

"It's important that they did move a bill out. It's important that they have approved 99.9 percent of the contract," Benner said. "The major negative part is that for the first time ever one house of the Legislature has chosen to amend a negotiated agreement."

The contracts are in effect, but ratification by each house is needed for them to remain in force.

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