DES MOINES, Iowa
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said Wednesday he'll bargain hard with unions representing state workers but has no plans to seek an end to their collective bargaining rights
Branstad told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that he'll push state worker unions to make big changes to a contract that was bargained with his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Chet Culver. Branstad wants reductions in pay and benefits.
Branstad said he also supports removing insurance from the list of items the state is required to negotiate with workers, but he intends to keep a collective bargaining agreement with unions representing state workers. Other benefits like pensions, vacations and medical leave will remain on the table, the governor said.
"The situation is different at all levels," Branstad said. "Wisconsin has got a much worse situation."
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker is trying to eliminate most collective bargaining rights for public sector workers. Walker has said that would give officials greater flexibility to react quickly to the need to cut spending at a time when the state faces a projected $3.6 billion shortfall
Although Iowa faces a budget shortfall of up to $700 million, Branstad said he doesn't see a need to goes as far as Walker in restricting bargaining rights.
"I'm just doing what I have to do under the circumstances," said Branstad.
The major changes Branstad is seeking would remove insurance from the topics that must be included in negotiations and end the right of workers to vote on cutbacks when severe budget pressures force reductions.
That measure is pending in the House and will be the subject of a public hearing Monday night.
Branstad has a rocky history with public sector unions. During his earlier four-term tenure as governor, Branstad once refused to provide the money to pay for a contract the state bargained with public sector unions. The Iowa Supreme Court ultimately intervened and forced the state to pay.
Although he supports only limited changes to Iowa's collective bargaining process, Branstad has been critical of the contract that Culver approved just days before leaving office. Branstad has threatened to fire hundreds of state workers if unions don't reopen that contract, which includes a 6 percent pay increase over the next two years.
"I just want to appeal to their sense of fairness and reasonableness," said Branstad. "Obviously they got a real sweetheart deal."
Union leaders so far have refused to make changes in the contract, expected to cost the state $103 million in the first year of the deal.
"I certainly would like to see them reconsider," Branstad said. "There's still time to reconsider."
Despite Branstad's pledge to seek limited changes to collective bargaining rules, Danny Homan, who leads the largest state employee union, said the governor is seeking significant changes in the contract and bargaining rights.
"If he is going to be a tough bargainer he should be willing to bargain on all the issues," said Homan, president of Council 61 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Homan promised to work to retain bargaining rights over insurance issues.
House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said he supports Branstad's position on bargaining. There are no plans afoot in the Legislature to seek fundamental change in the relationship between the state and its workers, Paulsen said.
"I have no designs to remove their right to form a union and bargain collectively," said Paulsen. "I don't think that's the direction that we're going."