Ohio Democrats Weigh Stalling a Union Bill or Asking Voters to Repeal It

Ohio Representative Armond Budish said if bolting the state would stall a bill restricting collective-bargaining rights for public employees, he’d do it “in a heartbeat.”

It wouldn’t work as it did for Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin and Indiana. Too few to block Republicans from having a quorum, Ohio Democrats are asking for more public involvement and hearings on the bill in an effort to sway opinion and will seek a ballot issue to repeal it if necessary, Budish said.

“If I have to take the lead on a statewide referendum, we will fight until we win,” Budish, the House minority leader, said in a telephone interview from Columbus.

With states facing what may be $175 billion in combined budget deficits during the next two years, Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin are seeking to increase contributions from public employees for pensions and health-care coverage while restricting their rights to bargain for future benefits.

Ohio Governor John Kasich and Scott Walker of Wisconsin say the measures will give state and local governments flexibility to manage budget cuts. Democratic lawmakers say they are a power play to break unions.

In Wisconsin, 14 Democratic senators fled to Illinois on Feb. 17 to block Walker’s “budget-repair bill” by preventing a quorum. Senate Republicans approved the measure March 9 by removing fiscal provisions, which allowed them to vote with fewer people present.

Detente in Indiana

Forty Democratic House members in Indiana also went to Illinois on Feb. 22 to prevent a vote on union-related bills, including a measure to limit collective bargaining for teachers.

House Minority Leader B. Patrick Bauer said he spoke by telephone March 9 from an Urbana hotel with Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma. They are making progress on compromises that would let the Democrats return, he said.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Bauer said during a conference call March 9.

The Ohio bill would require about 360,000 state and local government workers to bargain only for wages, hours and working conditions, and make them pay at least 15 percent of their health-care premiums. It would prohibit governments from contributing toward workers’ share of pension costs and ban strikes by government unions.

Playing Charades

Ohio requires a simple majority for a quorum, so Democrats can’t prevent a vote by leaving the state. The bill passed the Senate 17-16 on March 2.

With Republicans holding a 59-to-40 seat advantage in the House, Democrats should focus on a repeal referendum, said Representative Robert Hagan, a Democrat from Youngstown.

“What we’re doing now is performing a charade,” Hagan said in an interview. “They should get it over with, and we should put this on the ballot as soon as possible.”

A referendum would be held if petition forms with more than 231,000 voters’ signatures are filed within 90 days of the law’s approval, according to the secretary of state’s office. The number of signatures is 6 percent of the total vote cast for governor last year.

Prolonging the debate by offering amendments -- even if they fail -- can shape opinion, said Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University. He pointed to recent polls showing that most Americans oppose Republican attacks on collective-bargaining rights.

“Does it make sense for opponents to try to extend the debate?” Beck said in a telephone interview from Columbus. “I think in Wisconsin it did.”

Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder, a Republican from Medina, said it is “a disturbing factor” that Democrats are not offering their own solutions for what Kasich has said is an $8 billion budget shortfall in the coming biennium.

“I don’t expect any votes on that side, but I think we’re all facing tough times here,” Batchelder told reporters March 9.

Hearings on the bill are being held in a House committee this week. Batchelder has said he plans a final vote as early as next week.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Niquette in Columbus, Ohio at mniquette@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net

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