As the Ohio House of Representatives held hearings this week on a controversial bill that would limit collective bargaining rights for public workers, state Sen. Jimmy Stewart sought to explain why he voted for the legislation and clear up some misconceptions.
There is a lot of information circulating about Senate Bill 5, "saying it does things it simply doesn't do," Stewart, R-Athens, said Thursday. "I've heard from folks that think it's going to cut their pay or take away their insurance benefits."
Stewart was one of 17 senators, all Republicans, who voted for the bill on March 2, passing it out of the Senate by a one-vote margin. If the bill is approved by the House and signed by the governor, its provisions would not go into effect for workers until their current contracts expire, Stewart said.
As originally proposed, Senate Bill 5 would have eliminated collective bargaining for all state workers. It was later amended to allow for bargaining on issues like wages and working conditions, an amendment Stewart supported.
"I feel there do need to be some changes to collective bargaining," he said. "I don't want to see it done away with."
Also added to the bill were prohibitions against public employees striking and penalties for doing so.
On the Web
To read the full text of Senate Bill 5, as passed by the Ohio Senate: www.legislature.state.oh.us/bills.cfm?ID=129_SB_5
It has been reported that the bill does not allow collective bargaining for health benefits, but Stewart said that's not accurate. The bill sets the maximum amount a public employer can pay toward an employee's health insurance at 85 percent.
"Every employee would pay a minimum of 15 percent of their health care premium," Stewart said, noting the original bill proposed a 20 percent minimum.
Stewart said some public workers currently pay less than 15 percent of their health care benefits, including some who don't pay anything, and others actually pay more. Beyond the minimum, workers could negotiate to pay more in exchange for salary increases, he said.
Another effort to save money on health care costs is in the works, Stewart said, possibly as part of Gov. John Kasich's upcoming budget proposal or perhaps as a piece of standalone legislation. Legislators are looking into the idea of pooling all of the state's school employees' insurance with one provider.
"Instead of having every school district in the state have their own policy ... if we would just put them all under the same policy, it's estimated it would save about $150 million statewide," Stewart said.
Reducing premiums means the amount employees would have to pay would also decrease, he said.
What About Teacher Tenure?
Another concern some people have expressed is that teachers would lose their tenure. Stewart said no one who has tenure would lose it, including teachers who gain it under their current contract.
If the bill becomes law then once it goes into effect the maximum length a teacher's contract can be extended would be five years.
"Seniority is still a factor (when it comes to renewing a contract); it's just not the only, end-all, be-all factor," Stewart said.
Other considerations would be a teacher's certification, degrees, peer review, value-added state testing and whether the educator is a "highly qualified teacher" under the Ohio Revised Code. Stewart said a similar concept was proposed by President Barack Obama in 2009.
Exactly how those evaluations will be done can still be negotiated by school districts and unions, Stewart said.
"Maybe Marietta City Schools does it one way and maybe Warren's going to be a little different, or maybe they'll be the same," he said.
Stewart noted changes likely will be made when the bill goes through the House, a process that started Tuesday with sponsorship testimony before the Commerce and Labor Committee. One change he's willing to support is the elimination of binding arbitration, he said.
"(Binding arbitration is) not a perfect system, but at the same time, coming up with a better one is the challenge," Stewart said.
The current legislation would leave the final decision up to the local elected body, such as a city council or board of education.
"Since this is new ground, I'm a little uneasy about that," Stewart said.
One option may be an appeals process, something that was considered by the Senate. Stewart said giving a county common pleas judge the final say was considered in the senate but ultimately lacked support.
Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Athens, said she does not support the elimination of binding arbitration.
"That was one of those provisions that I thought the amendment actually made worse," she said.
Sometimes it's helpful to have a neutral, third party to make final decisions on contract matters, Phillips said. She added that in recent years, only a handful of local contracts in the state have gone to arbitration, with the decisions being split evenly among the workers and the government unit.
Phillips said she believes SB 5 unfairly places the burden for the state's budget problems on public workers.
"In my experience, at both the local and state level, the bargaining units have been willing to come to the table and make concessions," she said.
Phillips said the bill "is being rushed through too quickly," something Stewart denies.
"This bill has actually spent just as much time (being discussed) as the original collective bargaining bill did in 1983," the senator said. "With the exception of budget bills...you'd be hard-pressed to find many bills that get more than 22 hours of hearings and 100 witnesses."
Stewart said he has heard a lot of opposition to the bill, but noted he's also heard from many constituents who support the bill, and even some who want it to go further.