Charles Koch, along with his brother David, founded Americans for Prosperity. The state chapter is raising cash for a campaign to promote Senate Bill 5 and is driving for a state amendment opting out of the federal health-care law.
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COLUMBUS — For nearly two months, opponents of Ohio’s new law restricting the negotiating power of 360,000 public employees have been aggressively gathering signatures for a likely ballot issue while the law’s defenders largely have been missing in action.
That will change Tuesday.
Papers are expected to be filed to establish a committee to raise money and strategize over how to sway voters who, according to early polls, say they’re inclined to kill the law before it’s had a chance to influence a single salary, pension, or sick day.
The new pro-Senate Bill 5 committee also is expected to go live Tuesday with a Web site. The committee will be chaired by Vaughn Flasher, a longtime Statehouse lobbyist and political consultant who in recent years has helped Senate Republicans build the strongest majority they’ve had in four decades.
Mr. Flasher, however, will not be the face of the campaign as it contemplates how to turn on its head opponents’ arguments that the law is a GOP attack on Ohio’s middle class, working families, and organized labor.
Meanwhile, the Ohio chapter of the Washington-based Americans for Prosperity is raising money to conduct its own door-to-door grass-roots campaign to sell the merits of Senate Bill 5 to voters before the Nov. 8 election.
“We’ll be working together, but not technically together. We’ll be sharing information and working toward the same goal,’’ said Rebecca Heimlich, state director of the tax-exempt, nonprofit corporation. “We’ve had our plans for a while and have started fund-raising. We talked to [supporters of Senate Bill 5] a couple of weeks ago, and we will continue to communicate.’’
The official pro-Senate Bill 5 committee will have to report where it gets its money and how it spends it to the secretary of state. But while the conservative Americans for Prosperity, founded by brothers David and Charles Koch, will have to report its spending, it will not have to divulge the sources of its money.
So far, Ms. Heimlich said the money is largely coming from Ohio donors, although she’d be happy to take a check from outside the state.
In addition to selling Senate Bill 5 door-to-door and in town-hall meetings, Americans for Prosperity plans to promote, at the same time, a proposed constitutional amendment to exempt Ohioans from the mandatory coverage requirements under the federal health-care law. Petitions also are circulating to put that question on the fall ballot.
All eyes on Ohio
Larry Sabato, chief of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said he thinks national nonprofits will be major players in what is likely to be more than just an Ohio fight.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year equated corporate political spending with free speech, finding that it would be unconstitutional to limit such spending. The same would apply to unions.
“[The Ohio battle is] getting loads of attention,” Mr. Sabato said. “Both sides see this as a trial run for next year’s presidential election, a chance to really get the machine reoiled. It’s a chance to get the two party bases stirred up, to get their lists updated, [and] their volunteers energized, which is all for the good. This will cost millions and millions of dollars.”
A Quinnipiac Poll conducted in mid-May showed that registered voters, by a margin of 54 percent to 36 percent, are prepared to give the thumbs-down to the Ohio law limiting public employees’ bargaining rights. They particularly don’t like provisions that ban strikes by all public employees, prevent them from negotiating health benefits, and eliminate seniority as the sole factor determining the order of layoffs.
But the same poll could be a road map for the defense when it comes to targeting its ads. Fifty-nine percent of voters said they like the idea of requiring employees to pay at least 15 percent of their health-insurance premiums. Gov. John Kasich often uses that when praising the law, saying the average private-sector worker pays 23 percent.
Fifty-eight percent said they support requiring employees to contribute at least 10 percent of their wages toward their pensions, an issue addressed in the law by prohibiting local governments from picking up any portion of an employee’s share.
Fifty-seven percent like the idea of getting rid of automatic step or longevity pay raises in favor of a merit-pay system. The proposed two-year, $55.5 billion budget under consideration in the Senate incorporates similar language but only for public school teachers.
The minimum health insurance and pension contribution issues appear to have more support among union households, indicating a possible divide among private-sector and public-sector union members.
We Are Ohio, a coalition of public and private-sector unions, Democrats, and other groups, is using volunteers and paid petition circulators to obtain and file 231,147 valid signatures of registered voters.
“The overall message we’re seeing in the Quinnipiac Poll is what we’re seeing on the ground, a lot of enthusiasm and support for repeal of Senate Bill 5,” We Are Ohio spokesman Melissa Fazekas said. “We’re concentrating on getting the number of valid signatures to get the issue on the ballot through June 30.
“It comes down to making sure that people understand what the direct consequences of Senate Bill 5 are: an attack on working families and employees’ rights and safety,” she said.
The filing of signatures automatically would prevent Senate Bill 5 from taking effect while Secretary of State Jon Husted’s office and county boards of elections scrutinize the signatures. If enough signatures hold up, the law would stay in limbo until after the election and would never take effect if voters reject it.
A ‘classic campaign’
“This election is a classic campaign over how the issue is framed,” John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, said. “If it’s framed as an attack on collective bargaining and organized labor, voters are likely to strongly favor repeal.
“If it’s framed in terms of reducing the size of government, creating jobs, and making government more efficient, which is what a lot of the proponents argued when the legislation was going through, then voters are likely to support Senate Bill 5,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of politics between now and the fall over what people think about the bill.”
Support for the law
While the nation as a whole will be watching, Ms. Heimlich of Americans for Prosperity-Ohio said Senate Bill 5 is critical to Ohio and its people.
“We are still working on messaging at this point, but it’s my belief that there are two critical issues that we need to educate people about,” she said. “Senate Bill 5 is a way to give government the ability to manage its work force and to bring government back in line with private-sector pay.
“It also gives public employees a real choice as to whether to join a union,” she said. “Under the law before Senate Bill 5, if you chose not to join, you still could be forced to pay a fair-share fee.’’
The pro-Senate Bill 5 committee, while headed by Mr. Flasher, is expected to involve Mr. Kasich, Senate President Tom Niehaus (R., New Richmond), and House Speaker Bill Batchelder (R., Medina). Who voters will see in TV ads, however, remains unclear.
According to Joint Legislative Ethics Committee filings, Mr. Flasher counts among his lobbying clients elements of the tobacco, energy, telecommunications, and insurance industries as well as a Cleveland arts district and the United Way of Cincinnati.
Since 2006, he has run the campaign efforts of Senate Republicans, who kept their majority margin even when Democrats made significant gains elsewhere in state government. Now they outnumber Democrats better than 2 to 1.
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-221-0496.
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