What a difference an election makes. With a new labor-friendly DFL majority in the Minnesota House of Representatives — and incoming DFL Governor Tim Walz as a strong partner — Minnesota’s unions and legislative allies are looking to the 2019 session of the Minnesota legislature as a chance to make progress on key issues for working families.
“The majority that we won is actually a pretty robust majority,” incoming Speaker of the House Melissa Hortman told the Labor Review.“An eight-vote margin is a very nice margin for leadership to get things done.”
“We’re going to be working on the bread and butter issues that affect Minnesotans,” Hortman said, highlighting “affordable and accessible health care, world-class schools, jobs, and building infrastructure” for transportation and broadband.
With the Republicans holding a one-vote majority in the Minnesota Senate, however, “we’ll have to agree to find compromises,” Hortman acknowledged.
But “on the bread and butter issues,” Hortman maintained, “we have more things that bring us together than drive us apart.”
Hortman emphasized her strong commitment to organized labor.
“At this point in American history, it’s never been more important that we have a strong, unionized workforce,” she said. “In order to have a more level playing field… we need more unionized workers.”
“In that work,” she promised, “we are full partners.”
To that end, Hortman’s reorganization of the House committee structure includes the return of a Labor Committee, chaired by Representative Mike Sundin, a longtime member of the Painters and Allied Trades.
Hortman also appointed labor ally Representative Frank Hornstein to chair the House Transportation Finance & Policy Division. He told the Labor Reviewhe expects to bring forth a major transportation bill.
“We think it has the potential to be one of the biggest jobs-producing bills we’ve had in a while — if we can get the funding,” Hornstein said.
The state hasn’t raised the gas tax in ten years, Hornstein noted. Governor -elect Walz campaigned on the need to raise the gas tax to invest in transportation — and won by a large majority.
“We’re going to work on a bill that reflects the aspirations people have for a transportation system that includes everybody — the entire state,” Hornstein said. “That means the entire state: rural and metro and including all modes.”
Hornstein said he plans to hold hearings across the state on transportation needs.
“The House will pass a major bill with new revenue — then we’ll have to negotiate,” Hornstein said.
“I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll be able to get things done,” commented Carly Melin, executive director of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council.
Minnesota Senate Republican leader Paul Gazelka “only has a one-vote majority,” Melin noted. “I do think we’ll be able to come to consensus and [find] common ground.”
Melin, who serves on the Walz transition advisory board, noted that Walz included Republicans among that advisory body. “His collaborative, bi-partisan nature will allow for compromise with the Republican-controlled Senate.”
Melin outlined key issues for the Building Trades.
“We support a gas tax or metro area sales tax,” she said. “We think having a dedicated revenue source to fund transportation and transit needs is a better way to budget.”
“We just need basic infrastructure investments for roads, bridges and transit,” she said.
“Not only is that important for construction jobs,” Melin said, “but it’s also important to Minnesota’s economy to move people around.”
Building Trades: Address wage theft
Another priority for the Trades, as well as for SEIU, Melin said will be “to address wage theft and labor trafficking.”
“There’s a desire to see some statutory changes,” she said, and “we’ve been advocating for stepping up enforcement.”
In addition, Melin said, “we want to make sure prevailing wage is recognized and protected.”
“We support more affordable housing projects,” Melin said. “We think it’s important those are good paying jobs for workers constructing those projects.”
Worker abuse in the housing industry has brought charges by Hennepin County attorney Mike Freeman and national media attention to the Twin Cities.
“Our number one priority will be to continue to strengthen our oversight of wage theft and tax fraud,” said Adam Duininck, director of government affairs for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. “It’s a rampant challenge in our industry. The workers are being exploited, misclassified, even trafficked.”
“We want to make sure state agencies who have direct oversight have resources and staff to hold those contractors accountable,” Duininck said.
AFSCME Council 5: Increase staffing at state correctional facilities
Recent months brought two on-the-job deaths for Minnesota correctional officers. “We’re looking at around 327 additional correctional officers that are needed in correctional facilities statewide,” said Julie Bleyhl, legislative director for AFSCME Council 5. “There’s been an analysis by our officers to determine that number.”
“Governor-elect Walz has met with many of our officers and attended our convention and is well aware of the need for funding,” she said, adding the recent budget forecast projecting a $1.5 billion state budget surplus “was helpful.”
Bleyhl said AFSCME also will be supporting increasing the gas tax to fund transportation needs.
Health care will another focus, she said, with AFSCME supporting some type of Minnesota Care buy-in.
In addition, AFSCME will be echoing calls for a statewide mandate for expanding paid family leave.
“We’re going to need the Senate for any of these things to happen,” Bleyhl said.
“Yes, there’s definitely an opportunity for progress,” she said, but “nothing is going to be easy. It never is.”
Education Minnesota: Fully-fund education
For the 2019 session of the legislature, “I think a lot is possible,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union.
“I’ve heard Governor-elect Walz say he is interested in fully-funding public education and of course we support that,” she said. “It’s time.”
“With a teacher in the Governor’s office and a pro-public education House, we have an opportunity to take bold steps in fully-funding our system,” Specht said.
Specht emphasized, “we need to look at meeting the needs of students with more counselors and social workers.”
Reducing class sizes, especially special ed class sizes, also is important for teachers to have better relationships with students, she said.
For higher education, Specht said, relief from tuition increases should be a goal as well as investment in buildings and programs.
Governor Mark Dayton, she pointed out, despite increasing education funding, wasn’t able to catch up on prior administrations’ disinvestment in education.
Dayton’s signature accomplishment remains— supporting all-day kindergarten — and now, Specht said, Dayton’s additional emphasis on pre-K should be expanded.
“I believe that we should have free, universal pre-K as an option for every 4-year-old in Minnesota,” Specht said. “It really opens up access and equity.”
The 2019 session of the Minnesota legislature convenes January 8 and must adjourn by May 20.