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MPR’s Laura McCallum reports on bills that ratify contracts for state workers clearing legislative hurdles. The bills include pay and benefit provisions agreed to by state employee unions and the Ventura administration. But they're missing another provision -- health benefits for same-sex domestic partners. Gay and lesbian groups say removing the benefits is a slap in the face. 


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LAURA MCCALLUM: The State worker contracts have a long and tangled history. They were negotiated in the fall of 2001, after a two-week strike by the state's two largest unions. But House Republican leaders opposed including benefits for domestic partners of same-sex couples, and the legislature failed to ratify the contracts last year.

After the legislature adjourned, the state and unions re-signed the agreements with the domestic partner benefits. If the 2003 legislature doesn't ratify the contracts, state employees will revert to the same contracts that were in place two years ago. Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon, says the issue has dragged on too long.

STEVE SVIGGUM: We should get these current two years off the table, and get them decided, and get those increases in salary that were negotiated appropriately, get them ratified before we get on to the next two years of negotiation.

LAURA MCCALLUM: Sviggum says House Republicans won't accept the domestic partner provisions. Supporters of the same-sex benefits acknowledge they don't have the votes in either the House or Senate. State employee Mark Essick says his partner has been receiving the state health benefits since last year. He says eliminating them tells him that the state values some employees more than others.

MARK ESSICK: Now that the state has a year of experience with domestic partner benefits, most of the arguments heard in the past have been discredited. The cost has been minimal, as was advertised. There has been no fraud. No one has signed on their ex mother-in-law. There have been no lawsuits. The only remaining arguments is that some Minnesotans believe same-sex partnerships should be discriminated against.

LAURA MCCALLUM: Essick says domestic partner benefits are common in the private sector. Speaker Sviggum says the benefits discriminate against opposite sex domestic partners who don't qualify for the state benefits. Sviggum says he also objects to them on moral grounds. When pressed on the matter, he told the story of bumping into the daughter of his former Sunday school teacher who had a strict moral code.

STEVE SVIGGUM: I just remember referring back to the daughter today that her mother was a hard Sunday school teacher, but I appreciate it, and she would always tell me there was right and wrong in life.

LAURA MCCALLUM: Supporters of domestic partner benefits say some lawmakers don't want to accept the fact that there are gay and lesbian couples in Minnesota. Sviggum's bill removes all benefits for same-sex domestic partners, while the Bill moving through the Senate leaves intact bereavement leave and use of sick leave to care for a domestic partner. The Bill's Senate sponsor, DFL Majority Leader John Oettinger of Saint Peter, says the provisions don't cost anything.

JOHN OETTINGER: I am puzzled why the fixation on domestic partners would include taking some time off for sick leave and for bereavement that's already been earned by the employee for someone in their immediate family.

LAURA MCCALLUM: Speaker Sviggum says the bereavement and sick leave could be problematic when lawmakers try to reconcile the House and Senate bills. The Bills cleared the House and Senate government operations committees, but still have several more stops before they get to conference committee. Peter Benner is executive director of one of the affected unions, AFSCME Council 6. Benner says the Bill set a dangerous precedent by taking out the domestic partner benefits.

PETER BENNER: Now that it's been done once, the temptation is clearly going to come up to do it again. And who knows what the issue will be next time. The legislature, for 20 years, effectively honored the collective bargaining process, even when they did not necessarily agree with some of the outcomes.

LAURA MCCALLUM: Benner says the unions will begin negotiating their next two-year contract later this month. At the Capitol, I'm Laura McCallum, Minnesota Public Radio.


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