Worker compensation is question in state budget

DES MOINES – Gov. Terry Branstad has released his budget proposal, but one key part of the plan remains a question mark.

That’s compensation for the roughly 20,000 union represented state workers in Iowa. And the acrimonious tone between Branstad and the largest union’s president suggest the current contract talks will not be easily resolved, despite the fact that the state has extra money in the bank.

Like many other Republican governors, Branstad wants to win concessions from public sector workers, like requiring them to pay a portion of their health control costs. Branstad argues employees need to pay their share, but union president Danny Homan, of Iowa Council 61 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, called this an attempt to weaken the union.

“This governor campaigned for the office of governor by telling people he was going to make state employees pay 20 percent of their health insurance premium and by God, it doesn’t matter if it’s right, wrong or indifferent, that’s what he’s going to do,” Homan said. “This is nothing more than a political issue.”

Given that Iowa has emerged from the recent economic downturn in fiscally robust condition, analysts said Branstad’s position seemed based on conservative ideology, rather than financial need.

“It’s hard not to read the demands as something other than an ideological hostility to the collective bargaining process and to the power and benefits public sector workers earn,” said Bob Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois.

Bruno said top priorities for conservative elected officials like Branstad are cost-cutting and tax reductions.

Iowa is heading into the fiscal year that starts July 1 with a budget surplus of nearly $1 billion. Branstad wants to spend $400 million over five years on tax cuts, largely for commercial property owners. He has also proposed a $187 million education plan that would boost starting teacher salaries.

Branstad defended his efforts to cut employee costs Friday.

“It’s just a matter of appealing to what’s fair and right and what makes sense,” said Branstad, who last year started paying a portion of his health care costs. “We’re only one of six states in the nation paying zero. What we’re asking is that state employees pay their fair share.”

Branstad touted a recently resolved contract with the state police officers, which would require them to pay 20 percent of their health care premiums, or slightly lower if they entered a wellness program. Most of those 600 workers had already been paying a 15 percent contribution.

“We hope that this will set the pattern. We think this was a fair agreement reached by good faith bargaining,” Branstad said.

Homan said the police officers had different terms going into that contract negotiation than his members currently hold. The AFSCME union is seeking to maintain their current health benefits and wants 3 percent raises over the life of the two-year contract. Negotiations began in early January and if the two sides can’t make a deal, the process will go to arbitration in February.

Contracts have been settled through arbitration just twice since state workers started collective bargaining in 1977. One arbitration deal was reached in 1991 during Branstad’s previous run as governor. Branstad then vetoed a salary bill for the union and the workers successfully sued.

University of Iowa history professor Colin Gordon said the negotiating climate was more intense for this contract with Republican governor in office, compared with the past two Democratic governors who were more sympathetic to labor.

The state was set to spend $2.2 billion on employee wages and benefits in the $6.3 billion budget for the current fiscal year. A breakdown of how much of that goes to union-represented workers was not available Friday.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.