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Could Wisconsin-type union protests happen in Minnesota?

ST. PAUL - Minnesotans often compare their state budget and population with Wisconsin, so when 35,000 protesters packed the Wisconsin Capitol this week, it was only natural to wonder if the same could happen under the St. Paul dome.

Protests at Wisconsin state capitol
Democratic Wisconsin Assembly members cheer on the fourth day of large scale protests at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., Friday, Feb. 18, 2011. The Wisconsin State Patrol was dispatched Friday to find a Democratic state senator who fled the Capitol to delay the near-certain passage of a bill to end a half-century of collective bargaining rights for public workers, a measure that's attracted thousands of protesters for four days. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

ST. PAUL - Minnesotans often compare their state budget and population with Wisconsin, so when 35,000 protesters packed the Wisconsin Capitol this week, it was only natural to wonder if the same could happen under the St. Paul dome.

Democratic-Farmer-Laborites say a smaller version of the protest is possible. Republicans say there are enough differences between the states that such protests are less likely.

The Madison protests center on a plan that all but eliminates public employee unions' ability to bargain for higher wages.

Nothing quite like that has moved to the top of the Minnesota Legislature's priority list, but there are bills ranging from freezing public worker wages to curtailing pensions. And there is discussion about constitutional amendments that could weaken unions.

However, most of Minnesota's most controversial issues either never will get a public airing (committees will consider only a fraction of the 1,024 bills introduced so far this year) or they will surface when Republicans present their budget plan early next month.


Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said that if Republicans mimic their Wisconsin counterparts and implement a "go-it-alone" strategy, the Minnesota Capitol could fill with protesters.

Dibble and House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said that Republicans, in control of the Minnesota Legislature for the first time in nearly 40 years, have rammed through a budget-cutting bill (which was vetoed) and other measures with little public or DFL input.

So far, Republicans have shown a preference of "favoring corporations over individuals," Thissen said, which could inspire union members and others to protest like in Madison.

"I think people are going to start showing up," he said.

Republican leaders did not agree that Minnesota could look like Wisconsin.

"We have very different states," said House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood.

Dean and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said their committees will hold thorough public hearings on budget plans, and they expect votes on Democrat Gov. Mark Dayton's budget proposal as well as their own spending plans.

Like in Wisconsin, budget decisions are bound to affect public employees.


Republicans will not say how their budget will look, but Koch said state employee wages and benefits must be considered. "Public employees are going to have to be part of the solution."

Dayton unveiled a $37 billion two-year budget plan on Tuesday. Koch and Dean said they will present their $32 billion plan soon after a Feb. 28 state revenue report.

Dayton's budget plan would eliminate 800 state jobs; Koch said Republicans are not looking at numbers yet.

Koch and Dean said their priorities are not like those in Wisconsin, where state workers would be required to pay for their own pensions and pay more for health insurance. Minnesota's requirements in those areas already are close to what Wisconsin Republicans seek.

Dean said nothing like that is moving through the Minnesota Legislature. Koch added that with Dayton in the governor's office, such a move would be unlikely to become law.

A long-scheduled union rally was held in the Minnesota Capitol this week, with laborers booing when the Wisconsin situation was mentioned. Another union member rally is planned for 4 p.m. Tuesday to show solidarity with their Wisconsin colleagues.

No major anti-Republican budget protests are expected in Minnesota until the GOP releases its spending proposal.

There certainly are differences between the two states. For one, Republicans hold the Wisconsin governor's office as well as both chambers of the Legislature. In Minnesota, the governor is a Democrat and Republicans lead the Legislature.


Another difference is that Wisconsin's deficit is projected to be $3.6 billion in the next two years, while the Minnesota figure is $6.2 billion.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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