Tension Builds Over Collective-Bargaining Bill in Ohio Senate

" ... The sweeping legislation would limit bargaining rights for more than 350,000 public employees teachers, safety forces, corrections officers, snowplow drivers and other state and local government workers. As it stands now, the bill would prohibit strikes, eliminate binding arbitration and limit the issues subject to negotiation. ... "

By Darrel Rowland and Catherine Candisky
The Columbus Dispatch | February 28, 2011

Upping the contentiousness of an already-emotional debate in the Ohio Senate, the Democratic leader fired back today at the GOP Senate president, accusing Republicans of shutting the Dems out when developing a measure that would sharply restrict collective bargaining.

After Democrats did not offer a single amendment to Senate Bill 5 by Friday's deadline, Senate President Tom Niehaus chided party members who "apparently abandoned the legislative process on this bill" and added, "Much like their counterparts in Wisconsin, they apparently would rather grandstand in defense of the status quo."

Senate Minority Leader Capri Cafaro today slammed Niehaus, saying in a letter to the senator from New Richmond that "the legislative process on Senate Bill 5 has been flawed from the beginning due to a lack of transparency and inclusion. If any fingers should be pointed in regards to 'abandoning the legislative process,' they should be directed at the majority caucus who have dictated the terms and timing of this ill-conceived bill."

A fifth hearing on the controversial proposal is slated for Tuesday afternoon at 1, with another round of protests set to form around 10 a.m. The committee could vote on the measure, which might be approved by the full Senate later this week. House leaders say they want to OK it by March 15, when Gov. John Kasich unveils his two-year budget, which is expect to dominate legislative activity in the ensuing three and-a-half months.

The sweeping legislation would limit bargaining rights for more than 350,000 public employees teachers, safety forces, corrections officers, snowplow drivers and other state and local government workers.

As it stands now, the bill would prohibit strikes, eliminate binding arbitration and limit the issues subject to negotiation. State employees could bargain for wages only. Other public workers could negotiate beyond that; for instance, law enforcement and firefighters could bargain for wages and safety issues such as equipment.

"We've laid out some worthy long-term goals in this bill to rein in the cost of government," Niehaus said in his statement Saturday. "Democrats have voiced opposition and rallied in protest, but when given the opportunity to present alternatives, they walked away. It's disingenuous to call for more hearings on a bill they have no intention of improving. Ohioans expect more and deserve better."

But Cafaro, a Hubbard Democrat, responded that the bill "was drafted in secret" and withheld from Democratic members of the committee hearing the proposal.

"The only opportunity for my members to question the intent of the sponsor of the bill was done without even the basic understanding of what was in the bill. How can we have active dialogue on an issue such as this which begins without even the courtesy of offering us the opportunity to read the bill?"

She said she asked for more hearings so that others with an interest in the bill, including representatives of the faith-based community, would have a chance for input.

"Until the Senate majority is willing to start a new discussion on collective bargaining that brings all stake holders to the table, Senate Democrats remain adamantly opposed to Senate Bill 5."

Meanwhile, a new report released today questioned whether scaling back collective bargaining rights is necessary to reduce costs, noting that Ohio teacher salaries on average fell 3.8 percent in between 2008 and 2009 under the existing law.

The national average was 2 percent.

"Weakening the state collective bargaining law won't help (cut) the deficit," said Dale Butland, spokesman for Innovation Ohio, a new progressive research group based in Columbus.

"We understand sacrifices will have to be made but we contend that sacrifices can be made through the current collective bargaining structure."

An eight-page analysis released by Innovation Ohio at a press conference in Columbus cited U.S. Department of Labor statistics on salaries showing that only teachers in Michigan and Utah had larger pay cuts between 2008 and 2009, the most recent data available.

Former state Rep. Steve Dyer, a Democrat who conducted much of the research, said if the legislation becomes law, he believes there will be greater disparity among school districts.

"It will be a return to ZIP-code education, ZIP codes that can afford these kind of things and those that can't," he said.

The report also noted that the last state budget included many changes to the teaching profession including provisions which more than double the years of experience needed to secure tenure from three to seven and making it easier to fire bad teachers.

Innovation Ohio is headed by Janetta King, who until early this year was chief policy adviser for former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland. King said the organization is nonpartisan and will provide the progressive perspective on state policy.

King declined to reveal who is funding the organization or who would serve on its board except to say that it would be comprised of Democrats, Republicans and independents. She said conservative groups have done a very good job of providing an intellectual perspective on issues at both the national and state level and "progressives are catching up."

http://www.dispatch.com/live/content/local_news/stories/2011/02/28/tension-builds-in-ohio-senate-over-collective-bargaining.html?sid=101