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Protesters Rally in Columbus Against Union-Bargaining Bill

March 1 (Bloomberg) -- The largest crowd yet to protest an Ohio bill limiting collective-bargaining rights for public employees gathered at the Statehouse in Columbus as a Senate committee began considering possible amendments.

An estimated 8,500 people came to the Statehouse today, including about 7,700 outside where speakers were addressing the crowd and bands were performing, according to Gregg Dodd, the Statehouse spokesman. It’s the largest demonstration so far in Ohio related to the bill, he said.

The office of Republican Senator Kevin Bacon, the chairman of the committee hearing the bill, has received an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 e-mails during the past week and an uncounted number of phone calls that are so voluminous, they are being downloaded to disk to be reviewed when possible, Bacon said.

“It’s the American way,” Bacon said in a telephone interview. “People protest, they demonstrate. We’ve seen a good exercise of democracy here.”

The Center on Policy & Budget Priorities projects that states face total deficits of $125 billion, and Republican governors including Ohio’s John Kasich, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and New Jersey’s Chris Christie are trying to change rules for collective bargaining and worker contributions for health care and pensions. In Wisconsin, Walker’s bill has prompted days of protests at the Capitol in Madison.

The governors say the changes will enable state and local governments to manage budget cuts. Critics say the efforts are “union busting.”

Ohio Bill Proposals

The Ohio bill would allow state and local government workers to bargain for wages only and eliminate binding arbitration in contract disputes. It also would replace salary schedules with merit pay, require workers to pay at least 20 percent of their health-care costs and prohibit governments from paying any part of employees’ share of pension costs.

The Senate Insurance, Commerce and Labor Committee began considering possible changes to the bill today, including prohibiting strikes by all public employees and allowing a fact-finder to intervene in a negotiating impasse. If an agreement still can’t be reached, a legislative body would be able to accept the last best offer from either a union or public employer.

Bacon told reporters the panel is expected to debate the changes during another hearing tomorrow and possibly vote on the measure. A vote by the full Senate, which Republicans control by a 23-10 margin over Democrats, could follow quickly after that, he said.

‘Bad Bill’

Bacon said that he doesn’t expect all Republicans to vote for the bill but that he has the votes needed to pass the bill out of committee.

Senate Democrats haven’t had a chance to review the proposed changes, though they would rather try to kill the bill than amend it, said Senator Capri Cafaro, the minority leader.

“You can’t amend a bad bill,” Cafaro said in an interview.

An analysis released Feb. 27 by Kasich’s administration concluded that had the bill under consideration been in effect during the 2010 fiscal year, Ohio would have saved at least an estimated $216.9 million. Local governments would have saved at least an estimated $1.1 billion, the analysis by the Ohio department of administrative services said.

A separate study released yesterday showed that under existing collective-bargaining rules, Ohio’s kindergarten, elementary, middle-school and high-school teachers saw their salaries decrease an average of 3.8 percent between 2008 and 2009. That compares with the average of a 2 percent increase for teachers nationwide, said the study by Innovation Ohio, a newly formed group in Columbus led by Janetta King, the policy director for former Democratic Ohio Governor Ted Strickland.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Niquette in New York at mniquette@bloomberg.net.

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

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