Collective-bargaining bill passes legislature; referendum likely

March 31, 2011: A drastic overhaul of Ohio's nearly 30-year-old collective-bargaining law cleared the legislature on Wednesday after nearly two months of contentious hearings, raucous protests and passionate debate.

Now the fight comes to your doorstep.

Republican Gov. John Kasich will sign Senate Bill 5, which will spark a voter referendum effort by Democrats and unions to defeat the bill by putting it before voters on the Nov. 8 ballot.

"This isn't over," House Democratic Leader Armond Budish, of Beachwood, said on the House floor before representatives approved it, 53-44. "We've just begun to fight, and we're going to fight like hell."

SB 5 opponents booed and chanted "Shame on you" and "Repeal" from the House chamber's balcony after the House approved the bill . Two banners also were draped over the balcony and a few profanities could be heard before House Speaker William G. Batchelder, a Medina Republican, had Highway Patrol officers clear the gallery, which held about 200 spectators.

Democrats and unions are expected to spend up to $20 million to defeat the measure, an amount Republicans admit will be tough to match.

Republicans hailed the bill's passage in the House as a victory for Ohio taxpayers who have had to foot the bill for costly public labor contracts negotiated through a collective-bargaining process that favors unions.

"Today, this House has taken an unprecedented step toward public policy that respects all Ohioans, especially our taxpayers and our hardworking middle class," Batchelder said in a prepared statement.

In recent weeks, SB 5's far-reaching effects on public unions and its vehement opposition placed Ohio alongside Wisconsin and other states that spawned a national discussion about workers' rights.

The bill would reduce the number of topics subject to collective bargaining, ban public workers from striking, prohibit employers from paying more than 85 percent of workers' health insurance costs and set pay raises on performance rather than length of service.

House Republicans approved numerous changes to the bill this week, including: a provision to explicitly allow police and firefighters to negotiate for personal safety equipment; a restriction on public workers contributing to a political action committee through a payroll deduction; a new performance-based pay scale for teachers and other workers; and a ban on requiring "fair share" fees -- union dues paid by public workers who decide not to join their union.

House Republicans also included a provision that would make it easier to decertify a public union. Currently, more than 50 percent of workers must sign a petition to hold a decertification vote. The latest version of SB 5 knocked the petition threshold down to 30 percent.

Although GOP majorities in the House and Senate gave opponents little hope of stopping the bill's passage, the anti-SB 5 protesters ensured Wednesday that lawmakers knew they weren't going away.

"Mama, mama can't you see?" they chanted as they awaited lawmakers' arrival in the Senate chamber. "What John Kasich's done to me."

The House was first to act Wednesday on the latest version of SB 5, with the Senate agreeing to the changes by a 17-16 vote Wednesday night.

It was easily the most tension-filled House session this year.

Batchelder repeatedly banged his gavel to quiet the SB 5 opponents in the House chamber. He threatened to clear the gallery on more than one occasion during members' floor speeches. He finally ordered the gallery cleared when protesters erupted after the House vote.

Five Republicans joined all Democrats present in voting against the bill: Reps. John Carey, Randy Gardner, Terry Johnson, Casey Kozlowski and Ross McGregor. Kozlowski is from Ashtabula County, and the four others are from outside Northeast Ohio.

"I was pretty upset a couple of times. I think we do our very best to extend the courtesies of the House," Batchelder said after session. "On the other hand, I understand that they're very distressed. They've been lied to by a bunch of labor leaders."

With SB 5 heading toward a voter referendum, Batchelder and House Republicans launched a public relations campaign, including a website, earlier Wednesday aimed to inform voters why the bill is needed to save local governments money and ultimately preserve jobs.

House Democrats ripped the bill during their floor speeches as a political attack by Republicans on labor groups. They warned SB 5 would have a damaging ripple effect on Ohio's middle class.

They challenged Republicans' claim the bill will help state and local governments save money.

"This bill is about raw political power," Rep. Mike Foley, a Cleveland Democrat, said before the vote. "This has nothing to do with balancing our budget. This has everything to do with consolidating Republican power."

For the referendum to be on the ballot, proponents trying to overturn SB 5 must take out petitions and gather more than 231,000 signatures by July 6.

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