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Published: Sunday, 11/6/2011 - Updated: 2 years ago

Issue 2 puts Ohio back in spotlight

Curb on union power a U.S. bellwether issue

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS — Eyes across the nation will be watching Tuesday as Ohio again plays out its role as bellwether state by weighing in on government attempts to restrict the collective bargaining power of public workers.

“It’s the No. 1 political topic being voted on by the states,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“There are state legislative races in Virginia and New Jersey,” he said. “The governor’s races in Kentucky and Mississippi are done deals. There’s an interesting tax vote in Colorado, but in terms of an issue that everybody relates to, it would be Issue 2 in Ohio, the great super-swing state.”

Automated phone calls funded by the committee seeking to save the law, Building a Better Ohio, warn that the 2012 presidential election could be at stake if President Obama and labor are emboldened by a win on Issue 2.

Opponents of the law continue to focus on public-safety workers such as firefighters and police and the loss of their ability to negotiate staffing levels into their contracts.

Either way, Issue 2, the referendum on Senate Bill 5, has lived up to its promise as one of the most contentious ever to reach Ohio’s ballot, laying bare a partisan divide in state government.

The 302-page Senate Bill 5, the first major rewrite of Ohio collective-bargaining law in 28 years, would, among numerous other things, prohibit strikes by all public employees, limit the topics for negotiation, require workers to pay at least 15 percent of their medical-insurance premiums, and forbid local governments from picking up any portion of an employee’s share of pension contributions.

It also would make it easier for workers to seek a vote to decertify a bargaining unit and prohibit the automatic deduction of “fair-share” fees from the paychecks of employees who refuse to join the workplace union.

“One of the benefits of Issue 2 — if there are any benefits, a political one — is it has engaged the Democratic base at a level that we’ve not seen in an off-year cycle statewide,” Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern said. “Activists who were disappointed with the results of the 2010 cycle may not have to wait two years to show their disappointment at the polls.”

“They were engaged in the weeks after the 2010 election by Senate Bill 5’s passage, the overreach by Republicans,” Mr. Redfern said.

Jason Mauk, spokesman for Building a Better Ohio, countered that opponents of Issue 2 have turned this into a political debate.

“They have clearly stated their intent to drive up the score and flex their political muscle in advance of a presidential contest,” Mr. Mauk said. “Their national allies have pumped millions of dollars into this effort, and they’ve clearly asked the President to get involved.”

“We see this as a policy discussion,” he said. “It’s important not to be so short-sighted that we make this all about 2012 or who wins the next election. This is about the future of the state. It’s about the sustainability of our state and local governments.”

Gov. John Kasich, Republican lawmakers, and other supporters have argued that Senate Bill 5 is necessary to rebalance a negotiating table that they said has tilted too far in favor of powerful public-employee unions. Mr. Kasich has hit the road to pitch Issue 2, which Democrats have characterized as a referendum on him.

“The bottom line in this debate is that Ohio has a choice,” Mr. Mauk said. “We can continue business as usual and lay off good employees and raise taxes or we can move in a new direction. We believe Issue 2 provides Ohio with some very reasonable reforms to get costs of government under control.

“This is about providing flexibility in a tough economy to local governments who are struggling to balance their budgets,” he said. “It’s about curbing the constant demand for higher taxes on hard-working families that have increased their financial burden over the last decade to the point of unsustainability.”

Opponents of the law, led primarily by labor and Democratic organizations, have countered that Senate Bill 5 is political payback by a Republican majority flexing its newfound muscle.

“Issue 2 is unfair and unsafe, and it hurts local communities,” Melissa Fazekas, spokesman for the opposition group We Are Ohio, said. “It takes away collective-bargaining rights from public employees and makes coming to the table with safety issues like staffing levels illegal. That’s not good for local communities.”

“Public employees didn’t cause the economic problems, but they’re helping to solve it by giving back more than $1 billion in sacrifices to help the state and local economy,” she said. “Senate Bill doesn’t create one job, but it and the budget could cost the state 51,000 jobs.”

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.



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