COLUMBUS — Any campaign to defend a new law undercutting the power of public employee unions cannot cede the high ground of fighting for Ohio’s middle class if it hopes to win a looming referendum fight, the law’s advocates say.
Outside the Statehouse on Saturday, opponents of Senate Bill 5, some 11,000 strong, held yet another rally to protest the law and to launch a petition drive to put the law on hold pending a repeal vote on Nov. 8.
But inside the limestone walls of the Statehouse, the strategy for defending the law had yet to be devised. The message to counter opponents’ argument that Senate Bill 5 is a Republican attack on the middle class is murky.
“Unions continue to use this language of middle class or working class inappropriately,” said Chris Littleton, president of the Ohio Liberty Council, the closest group to a statewide Tea Party organization.
“They equate being union members with being in the middle class,” he said. “One has nothing to do with the other. If you’re in a union, you probably are working or middle class, but it doesn’t necessary follow that if you’re not in a union that you’re not in the working or middle class. A lot of Ohioans are not in unions.”
And there’s still a chance that the referendum on Senate Bill 5 won’t be the only game on Nov. 8, forcing the Tea Party, labor unions, Republicans, and Democrats to make potentially tough choices on where to put their money and manpower.
The Tea Party continues to forge ahead with petitions for its own ballot issue, a proposed constitutional amendment to allow Ohio to opt out of mandatory coverage provisions of President Obama’s signature health-care reform law. Presumably, the health-care ballot issue could draw more conservative and Republican voters to the polls which might help offset what is expected to be a large labor and Democratic turnout for the repeal of Senate Bill 5.
“Health care is our focus, which makes decisions about engaging in a substantial fight related to Senate Bill 5 all the more difficult,” Mr. Littleton said. “How much can one organization do to shoulder the load on something like this? There’s a finite amount of money and people. Our heart’s in health care.”
As signed by Mr. Kasich more than a week ago, Senate Bill 5 would prohibit strikes by all public employees, limit what they can negotiate at the bargaining table, and prohibit unions from automatically deducting “fair share” fees from the paychecks of workers who don’t join.
It would prevent local governments from picking up any portion of a worker’s share of his pension contributions, scrap automatic step and longevity pay hikes in favor of yet-to-be-defined merit pay systems, make it easier to petition for decertification of a union, require workers to pay at least 15 percent of their health-care premiums, and eliminate binding arbitration as a means of bringing final resolution to contract disputes involving police, firefighters, and other public safety employees.
The fight on Nov. 8 will come down to winning over those “middle-class” voters that both sides are targeting. Republicans can be expected to generally make the case that they’re “protecting” middle-class taxpayers who are forced to pay for overly generous public employee contracts for teachers and state workers.
More to the point, the argument against repeal likely will be that a vote for repeal is a vote for higher taxes to continue to pay for union contracts the public can’t afford.
Democrats and labor leaders have characterized the bill as an “attack” on teachers and the working middle class. Their television ads could tie the current battle to the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
“We have looked at that,” said Dennis Willard, spokesman for the We Are Ohio coalition fighting Senate Bill 5.
“We believe that, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the twin towers, there will be more attention paid to the police officers and firefighters who are now under attack by Senate Bill 5,” he said. “The only people running into the buildings were public safety employees.”
House Speaker Bill Batchelder (R., Medina) said the campaign in support of Senate Bill 5 can’t be that simple.
“I think the matter will be handled through a series of messages,” he said. “I think it’s that kind of an issue, the complexity. … My sense would be some slogans that might reflect the populist side of the thing, let the people rule...
“My sense is at this point, until probably [this] week or Monday the week after, we won’t have the name of a leader or that kind of thing,” he said. “But it’ll be coming very soon.”
Opponents of Senate Bill 5 have created a political action committee and have a Web site, WeAreOhio.com, designed to attract volunteers to circulate petitions. They have submitted signatures to put preliminary petition language before Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine for his review. Once Mr. DeWine signs off on the accuracy of the language, they can begin to gather a minimum of 231,147 valid signatures of registered Ohio voters to put repeal of the law on the ballot.
The 90-day clock started ticking when the signed law was filed with the secretary of state’s office on April 1.
Meanwhile, Republicans have created their own Web site, SB5truth.com, to counter what they claim is a campaign of misinformation on the law orchestrated by the opposition. But there is no formal organization yet to battle the law, no one named to lead the fight, and no one who’s stepped up to pay the tab for what is likely to be a multimillion-dollar campaign on both sides.
Mr. Littleton said the Tea Party has looked around for a group with deep pockets, something like the Washington-based Americans for Prosperity.
“We don’t know what the national narrative of this is,” he said. “It’s still a state-based thing, but ears are listening. There’s a lot of moral support, but at what point does moral support translate into monetary support?”
A lot of the millions that could be spent could come through relatively anonymous, nonprofit organizations that seek to protect the identities of their donors. Mr. Kasich and fellow Republicans have largely pointed to local governments as the beneficiaries of more flexible collective-bargaining rules, but they don’t contribute financially to political campaigns.
The Ohio Education Association plans to ask its members to pay up to $50 each to help underwrite the anti-Senate Bill 5 campaign.
“I think that’s unfortunate,” Mr. Batchelder said. “They get enough from their members without having to surcharge for the purpose of fighting Senate Bill 5.”
Mr. Kasich talked about the law Friday before the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, which has previously said it wasn’t sure what role it will play in the referendum campaign. Afterward, Mr. Kasich said those in the room have a stake in the issue.
“Every Ohioan does,” he said. “It’s a matter of being in a position where we can control our costs. … I think every Ohioan likes to see our government workers judged on the basis of their performance. I think they like that idea. I think they like our teachers being paid more money, but based on their performance.”
But Mr. Kasich waved off a reporter’s question as to whether those in the room should contribute financially to defend Senate Bill 5.
Whatever comes, Mr. Willard said the anti-Senate Bill 5 forces will be ready.
“We are preparing for a strong campaign from our side and also for individuals and organizations that support this attack on workers’ rights,” he said.
Mr. Kasich has talked about inserting some of Senate Bill 5’s language pertaining to criteria for judging teacher performance into the state budget.
As a general rule, appropriations bills are not subject to referendum. But that’s not a sure thing, given the Ohio Supreme Court decision last year that found Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland and lawmakers couldn’t sidestep a voter referendum on placing slot machines at racetracks by inserting the language in the budget.
While some aspects of Senate Bill 5 that deal with school and local government spending might be a good fit with the budget, Mr. Batchelder said he believes a wholesale insertion of Senate Bill 5 into the budget would simply invite two referendums instead of one.
Lawmakers moved quickly to get Senate Bill 5 to the governor’s desk by early April to ensure that any referendum would have to appear on the 2011 off-year ballot. If the language should be included in the budget and then ultimately be determined to be subject to referendum, the election calendar would automatically push that question to 2012 when President Obama will seek re-election and most state lawmakers would be on the ballot.
That is something Republicans had hoped to avoid, but Democrats would relish.
And then there’s the issue of voter education. Although the referendum is the work of Senate Bill 5 opponents, they will advocate a “no” vote. The question will be framed as an up or down vote on the law, not the repeal.
“That is a tricky part, too,” Mr. Batchelder said. “There’ll have to be some messaging on that particular point.”