By Mark Niquette
COLUMBUS: The Ohio Senate passed a bill to limit collective-bargaining rights for public employees by a 17-16 vote, with all Democrats and six Republicans objecting. The measure now moves to the Republican-controlled House.
Senators debated the bill Wednesday in front of a packed Senate chamber including six men wearing firefighter helmets.
Protesters outside listened to an audio feed, and their cheers and jeers could be heard inside. There were shouts of ''shame'' after the bill passed.
Sen. Shannon Jones, a Republican from the northeastern suburbs of Cincinnati and the bill's sponsor, acknowledged the demonstrators, though she said the measure is needed to give state and local governments the ability to cut costs and lower the number of firings needed in the face of budget reductions.
''I understand that change is hard,'' Jones said during the debate. ''But sometimes change is the only option because the status quo has failed us.''
The legislation would require workers to contribute at least 15 percent of their medical premiums and would prohibit negotiations on those benefits.
The bill next goes to the House, which Republicans control 59-40. Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, supports the bill.
''This is a major step forward in correcting the imbalance between taxpayers and the government unions that work for them,'' Kasich said after the vote.
With states facing total deficits of $125 billion, according
to the Washington-based Center on Policy & Budget Priorities, governors such as Kasich and Republican Scott Walker of Wisconsin are seeking to require public employees to pay more for health care and pensions while restricting their right to negotiate future contracts.
The bills have sparked days of protests in Columbus and at the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison.
Democrats and labor leaders in Ohio have called the bill an attempt to ''bust unions.'' They say that it isn't needed because workers have been willing to accept concessions, and that it gives too much power in negotiations to public employers.
State Sen. Tom Sawyer, an Akron Democrat, said he was in the legislature when the current collective-bargaining law was passed in 1983. The law has limited the number of public- employee strikes to five during the past three years, with none last year, he said.
''It has worked, and it is working,'' Sawyer said during debate. ''It may not be perfect, but I would submit that this is not the time to tear this apart.''
The Ohio bill would allow about 360,000 state and local government workers to bargain only for wages, hours and working conditions; require workers to pay at least 15 percent of their medical costs; and prohibit governments from paying part of the employees' share of pension costs.
The measure also would make strikes by public workers illegal. It eliminates binding arbitration and allows legislative bodies such as city councils and school boards to accept the last, best offer from either a union or public employer after a public hearing if an agreement can't be reached in negotiations.
List of changes
Under other provisions:
• Pay is to be based on merit.
• Police and fire department supervisors are moved from union ranks into exempt positions.
• Seniority can no longer be a sole determining factor in order of layoffs or dismissals.
• Union contracts cannot set ratios, such as the number of pupils per teacher.
• Governments can terminate, modify or reopen a contract if the government is determined to be in fiscal watch or emergency a condition that can be decided by the state auditor or governor.
• Union employees can have no more than six weeks of vacation before 20 years of service, and no more than 12 paid holidays and three paid personal days.
• Privately run, publicly funded charter schools are prohibited from collective bargaining.
Earlier Wednesday, the 12-member Senate Insurance, Commerce and Labor Committee voted 7-5 to send the bill to the full Senate, with all four Democrats and one Republican voting against it.
Republicans got their seventh vote after Sen. Bill Seitz, who opposed the bill, was replaced on the committee by Republican Sen. Cliff Hite, who voted for it.
Seitz said during debate that the bill restricts the ability of police and fire unions to negotiate in a way that the Wisconsin measure doesn't. He also objected to allowing a legislative body to select the final contract offer, which he called a ''heads-I-win, tails-you-lose solution.''
Senate leadership had to take another step to move the bill to the full Senate. Sen. Scott Oelslager, R-Plain Township, who also voiced opposition to the bill and voted against it, was removed from the Rules Committee to win the votes needed to move the bill to the floor.
Locally, Sens. Frank LaRose, R-Akron, and Larry Obhof, R-Montville Township, voted for the bill.
Leaders of police and fire unions said that the legislation will jeopardize their members by prohibiting them from negotiating for equipment, including bullet-resistant vests. Republican Senate President Thomas Niehaus disputed that interpretation.
In Ohio, legislative Democrats can't stall the bill by leaving the state to prevent a quorum, as their counterparts in Wisconsin and Indiana did.
Ohio voters may get the final say. If the legislature passes the bill in essentially its current form, there will be a move to repeal it, said Sen. Joe Schiavoni, D-Canfield.
''Thank God we have the ability in Ohio to put a law on the ballot for the people to override their officials' mistakes,'' Schiavoni said during debate.
To place the issue on the statewide ballot in November and put the law on hold until then, petitions with 231,147 valid signatures of registered voters must be collected by July 6, according to the Ohio secretary of state's office. The number of signatures represents 6 percent of the total vote cast for governor last year, as set by Ohio law.
Kasich plans to release his proposed budget for the next biennium on March 15. Ohio faces a potential shortfall of $8 billion, Kasich has said, and he has promised to balance the spending plan without raising taxes.