LINCOLN — When you look at Lincoln and Minneapolis, it's hard to see much in common.
Minneapolis sits in a major metropolitan area with about 10 times the population of Lincoln. Its professional baseball team plays in the major leagues, not the lowest level of the minor leagues.
But when it comes to firefighters' wages, the Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations considers the two cities comparable.
The reason: Under state law, the population inside the Minneapolis city limits — 377,000 — is similar to Lincoln's population of 254,000. And the firefighters in the two cities, the commission concluded, have comparable working conditions and duties.
Calling those two cities comparable is one reason why Nebraska municipalities and other public sector employers and business groups from both Omaha and Lincoln — along with Gov. Dave Heineman — are pushing hard for meaningful change in the commission during the 2011 session of the Nebraska Legislature.
Representatives of those groups as well as of public employee unions filled a room Monday for a marathon seven-hour public hearing on the Commission of Industrial Relations called by the Legislature's Business and Labor Committee.
The committee took testimony on nine proposals and got a clear illustration of the battle lines that divide public employers and government workers on emotional matters related to the five-member panel, appointed by the governor, that resolves impasses in negotiating wages and benefits for public workers.
The commission was created six decades ago as a way to head off strikes by police officers, firefighters and other government workers.
On Monday, public employers called for changes that ranged from outright elimination of the commission and an end to collective bargaining by public employees to a package of changes intended to make the commission's decisions less costly and more predictable.
Those who want to see the commission overhauled, including several tea party groups, said elected officials need more control over public sector wages and that they are almost powerless to institute wage freezes and take other measures to rein in spending in today's tight fiscal times.
“It has led to out-of-control spending, higher taxes and outrage by taxpayers,” said State Sen. John Nelson of Omaha.
A representative of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and Nebraska Chamber of Commerce testified in favor of two measures introduced by Nelson — Legislative Bill 664 and a proposed constitutional amendment, Legislative Resolution 29 — that would abolish the commission and collective bargaining.
Other bills would make the commission only a mediator, with little power except to recommend a settlement; require that “comparable” communities are chosen more often from within the state; do away with a “special master” who mediates wages for college and university professors; and remove teachers unions from commission jurisdiction.
Supporters of outlawing collective bargaining by public employees said a few states already do that. Some cited discontent over raises negotiated by Omaha's police and fire unions in calling for an end to the commission and collective bargaining.
“It's bold, certainly, but not extreme,” said Jim Krieger, a vice chairman at Gallup who represented the Omaha and state chambers. “We want to put control of salaries back into the hands of the elected officials so they can manage what we elect them to manage.”
A coalition of labor unions, including those representing teachers, police officers, firefighters and state social workers, called some of the proposals “un-American” and “Draconian.” They said such measures seek to destroy the middle class and further erode wages of the average worker.
“Many of these CIR bills are atrocious and are supported by people who want to blame public employees for all of the budget problems in our state and city,” said Julie Dake Abel, head of the state employees union, the Nebraska Association of Public Employees.
Dake Abel and other union representatives said public employee wages generally have declined when compared with wages in the private sector.
They cited a 2008 report for the National Institute on Retirement Security, which concluded that state employees earn 11 percent less than their private-sector counterparts and that local government employees earn 12 percent less.
The union representatives said the Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations is used rarely, and that when it is, it renders an “average” wage for workers that is fair to employers as well as to employees.
If there were a problem with the commission being too generous to workers, why have teacher salaries in Nebraska fallen from 38th in the country to 42nd over the past six years, asked Jess Wolf of the Nebraska State Education Association.
Heineman, for his part, has said the time is ripe for overhauling the commission because of the problems being experienced by state and local governments. He has said he won't sign any legislation unless is it “meaningful and significant” and affects all areas of state and local government.
Omaha Sens. Steve Lathrop and Brad Ashford head a working group of participants, including the League of Municipalities, the state chamber and labor unions, to draft a bill that balances the concerns of both groups.
Lathrop said he will use one of his proposals, LB 397, to craft legislation that maintains the commission but defines which communities can be used in wage and benefit comparisons.
Though entities such as schools and counties aren't involved in the bill negotiations, the legislation will be crafted in the hope that it will govern them as well, according to Lathrop, who heads the Business and Labor Committee.
Ashford, a former Commission of Industrial Relations judge, said he favors some of the suggestions made by business groups, which include allowing the commission to compare wages of public employees with comparable private employees, which is not allowed now.
Ashford said the commission also needs clearer standards on how to figure the worth of health care and pension benefits into its mostly mathematical calculations.
The committee took no action on the nine measures after the hearing.
Contact the writer: