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Labor law backers say voters get voice on public contracts

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Gov. John Kasich signed Senate Bill 5 into law Thursday. Labor backers want to put a referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot to challenge it.

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COLUMBUS -- Supporters of a just-signed law restricting the collective bargaining power of public employees have pointed to a potential referendum process as a victory for taxpayers who would have a say in final contracts.

The process would allow local voters to decide whether they approve of a contract for public employees that had been approved by a local legislative body.

The entire bill is expected to be subject to a statewide referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot if Democrats, organized labor, and other opponents of the bill are successful in gathering 231,147 signatures in the next 90 days.

"Under current law, an unelected arbitrator can force a decision on local officials and the people they represent even if every person in a city, township, or county opposes it. There is no consent of the governed,'' said Rep. Louis Blessing (R., Cincinnati), who helped craft the language.

"Senate Bill 5 allows the people's elected representatives to decide,'' he said.

"It further allows the people themselves to referendum any contract that cannot be funded out of current revenues. Most importantly, this bill makes the offers to the contract themselves very transparent.''

But critics, including Republicans who admittedly haven't been friends of organized labor in the past, have argued such a referendum is a "charade.''

"I will guarantee you I will flap my arms and fly home before you will see a referendum,'' said Sen. Tim Grendell (R., Chesterland), one of six Republican senators who defected from the majority in his chamber to vote against Senate Bill 5.

The paper version of the bill was about three inches thick when Gov. John Kasich signed it into law after the Statehouse closed Thursday evening.

Among its numerous provisions, it prohibits all public employees from striking, prohibits local governments from picking up any portion of an employee's contributions to his pension, eliminates automatic step and longevity raises in favor of a yet undefined performance-pay system, and prohibits unions from automatically collecting "fair share'' fees from members of a workforce who opt not to join the union.

Mr. Kasich has argued that the bill restores much-needed balance between public employees and the taxpayers who pay their salaries and benefits at a time when the state and local governments are struggling with budget deficits.

Opponents have countered that Senate Bill 5 is a politically motivated attack by Republicans on organized labor, traditionally a stronghold of Democrats.

The language providing for a local voter referendum on contracts was added to the bill by Mr. Blessing and his Republican colleagues in the House as part of a new process to bring final resolution to contracts when talks reach an impasse.

This process would replace final binding arbitration, the system that now resolves disputes involving police, firefighters, and other public safety workers who are barred from striking under current law. The third-party arbitrator or conciliator, selected by both sides, picks and chooses on each issue between the two final offers submitted, fashioning a contract that the government must then accept.

Before signing Senate Bill 5 into law Thursday, Mr. Kasich again said binding arbitration allows "somebody from outside our community to impose a settlement that our communities at times cannot afford, and even the threat of binding arbitration is a threat to force our communities to make some decisions that don't make sense.''

The new resolution process would apply to all public employees who would now be barred from striking. It would require the city council, school board, or other local government legislative body to hold a public hearing within 30 days after a contract's expiration.

The elected board would choose between the final best offers submitted by the union and local government management. A voter referendum could follow.

Critics of this provision, however, argue that the hurdles just to reach the ballot are too high.

In order for a local referendum to occur, the affected government would have to vote to accept the more expensive of the two final best offers on the table, most likely the union's proposal. If the government's chief financial officer determines that the government can't afford to pay for that contract out of existing revenues, voters could gather signatures to both offers on the ballot, winner take all.

But if the local government should choose the less expensive offer, presumably its own, or fail to vote at all, which would automatically implement the government's offer as the contract, there could be no referendum.

"The referendum provision will never come into play unless you have a city council that doesn't want to get re-elected, wants to be personally liable, and wants to disregard their own chief financial officer, and I submit that person just doesn't exist,'' Mr. Grendell said.

Sen. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati), another rare Republican "no'' vote, also criticized the alternative dispute resolution process as too stacked against the public employee. He said the bill substitutes for a third-party decision-maker a party that has a financial stake in the outcome.

"The governor has rightfully argued that having unelected arbitrators make decisions that would bind the taxpayer is unfair and needs to be stopped…, but the bill that comes to us from the House comes full circle,'' Mr. Seitz said.

He noted that the bill defines state hospital boards of trustees as the final decision-makers when it comes to hospital employee contracts, university and college boards of trustees as the final word when it comes to public higher education employees, and the State Controlling Board when it comes to state employee agreements.

Hospital and university boards of trustees are appointed, and the controlling board consists of appointed legislators and a nonelected chairman.

"We now have binding decisions being made by unelected individuals, the very thing that Gov. John Kasich said he wanted to stop,'' he said.

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

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