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Issue 2: Separating the facts from fiction

Area residents, voters around the state have questions

October 15, 2011
By Evan Bevins (ebevins@mariettatimes.com) , The Marietta Times

For much of the year, the merits of Senate Bill 5 - the sweeping legislation that would reshape Ohio's collective bargaining laws for public employees - have been debated around the Buckeye State.

As the Nov. 8 general election and a referendum on the bill approaches, supporters and opponents alike are trying to get their message out and dispel what they see as myths about the controversial measure.

The law addresses a multitude of topics, including what can and cannot be collectively bargained, a prohibition against striking, elimination of binding arbitration for police and firefighters, eliminating tenure for teachers, establishing merit pay and even creating conditions under which the public can vote on certain contract agreements.

Article Photos

The organization Building a Better Ohio wants people to vote "yes" on Issue 2 to allow the law to take effect once election results are certified. Spokesman Jason Mauk says the biggest myth they have faced is that the bill eliminates all collective bargaining.

"These reforms would improve and modernize the collective bargaining process, specifically by giving taxpayers more transparency and participation in the negotiations," he said. "Issue 2 would allow decisions about how tax dollars are spent to be made by elected representatives who are directly accountable to the taxpayers."

On the other side of the debate is We Are Ohio, which is urging people to vote "no" on Issue 2 and repeal the law. Spokeswoman Melissa Fazekas said the biggest myth they've faced is that the bill just deals with making public employees pay their fair share.

Fact Box

Senate Bill 5

What can be bargained:

Wages.

Hours.

Terms and conditions.

Issues directly related to personal safety.

What can't be bargained:

Health care contributions of less than 15 percent.

An employee's contribution to his or her retirement.

The number of employees on duty or employed.

Number of students in a classroom.

Privatization or contracting out of work.

On the Ballot

Issue 2

A "yes" vote means you approve the law.

A "no" vote means you reject the law.

On the Web

In support of SB5: Building a Better Ohio, betterohio.org.

In opposition of SB5: We Are Ohio, weareohio.com.

Text of SB5: www.legislature.state.oh.us/BillText129/129_SB_5_EN_N.pdf.

Analysis of SB5: www.lsc.state.oh.us/analyses129/11-sb5-129.pdf.

PolitiFact Ohio: www.politifact.com/ohio.

Secretary of State summaries, official arguments, ballot language: www.sos.state.oh.us.

"It's not a small bill. It's 300 pages long. It makes hundreds of changes," she said.

Both sides argue their position protects public employees, especially safety forces, from layoffs.

While some voters have strong feelings for or against the bill, a number remain undecided. Among them is Marietta resident Ryan Whitnable.

"There are some days I feel like maybe they should take away some of those rights to balance budgets," he said. "But I also understand the other side ... that's their voices."

Dunham Township resident Bill Yoho, 54, said he was a little embarrassed to admit he hadn't followed the issue and wasn't aware that it applied to all public employees, not just state workers. However, he plans to learn about the subject and vote once he makes up his mind.

"I've got some reading to do," he said.

Whitnable said he knows Senate Bill 5 eliminates some collective bargaining rights but not necessarily which ones.

The bill allows collective bargaining for wages, hours and "terms and conditions" of employment. Specifically listed as topics "not inappropriate" for collective bargaining are employee retirement contributions, privatization or contracting out of services and minimum staffing levels.

Some have said the law means public employees such as firefighters and police officers will not be able to bargain for proper safety equipment. But the legislation does state that "equipment issues directly related to personal safety are subject to collective bargaining."

Staffing levels

The minimum staffing level provision has been another point of contention, with opponents of the law arguing that removing this from bargaining could put safety forces in danger by not having sufficient workers on the job. Meanwhile, supporters say staffing can still be discussed by workers.

"It's a topic that can be discussed but cannot be mandated through a collective bargaining agreement," Mauk said.

Mauk said fewer than 5 percent of public employee contracts require minimum staffing levels.

"That's an awfully small percentage of contracts to make such a big issue out of these provisions," he said. "(Opponents) are using it to play on fear and emotion."

Fazekas said employees can only discuss total staffing levels in negotiations if management allows it.

"It's not really collective bargaining; it's collective begging," she said. "Everything else, you may have a right to discuss but at the end of the day, management has all the power."

PolitiFact Ohio, a partnership between The Cleveland Plain Dealer and The St. Petersburg Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact initiative, rates the claim in a We Are Ohio ad that firefighters can't negotiate "for enough firefighters to do the job" as "Mostly True," noting it is accurate but needs clarification.

Recently, PolitiFact Ohio rated another We Are Ohio claim as "Mostly Untrue." A recent ad claims Senate Bill 5 makes it harder for nurses to care for patients. PolitiFact notes the ad does not make it clear that the bill applies only to nurses employed by public entities, such as health departments or university hospitals.

It does not affect nurses employed by facilities like Marietta Memorial and Selby General hospitals.

Fazekas said she was disappointed with PolitiFact's rating on that ad, saying she believes most people understood it only applied to nurses at public institutions, like the nurse featured in the ad.

Health care

Employee contributions to health care can be negotiated under Senate Bill 5 - but only to a certain point.

The law requires all public employees to pay at least 15 percent of their health care costs. If employees want to negotiate to pay more than that, they can, but a public employer cannot pay more than 85 percent of health care costs under the law.

Fifteen percent is already the contribution level for state and county employees, according to We Are Ohio, but for other political subdivisions the amount varies. Some, like the City of Marietta, pick up 100 percent of employees' insurance premiums.

Other entities require their workers to pay a portion of their insurance costs. The Warren Local school district requires 20 percent contributions, while Frontier Local Schools employees pay 12 percent of their premiums.

In the Marietta City school district, nearly two-thirds of employees last year chose a plan in which they paid 15 percent of their premiums. The rest chose a plan that had them paying 12 percent. District Treasurer Matt Reed said if Senate Bill 5 goes into effect, the 15 percent provision would save the district about $51,000 based on those numbers.

We Are Ohio also notes the 10 percent retirement contribution required by Senate Bill 5 is already state law. However, current law does not stop employers from paying a portion of that amount.

"It's a tool that's often used, and really, Senate Bill 5 takes that tool away and says, 'You can't even talk about this,'" Fazekas said.

Reed said the Marietta City district picks up 3 percent of retirement contributions for teachers and 3.5 percent for classified staff. Having them pay the full 10 percent could save the district more than $350,000, he said.

Cutting pay?

Among the "myths" listed on Building a Better Ohio's website is that "State Issue 2 would 'cut salaries and benefits.'" Whether that's the case seems to be a matter of interpretation.

"Employees would simply be asked to pay a modest share of their benefits, just like employees in the private sector do," the Building a Better Ohio site says.

But Fazekas argued that redirecting an employee's pay to health and retirement costs they weren't paying before does, in effect, cut their salary.

"When you start talking about cutting their wages and benefits, that's a direct impact to the local economy," she said.

Although Senate Bill 5 would go into effect after the vote is certified if voters approve it, many of the provisions would not take effect on employee groups until after their current contracts expire. That's one reason several local unions - including those representing employees in the Marietta City, Warren Local and Fort Frye Local school districts - have extended their current collective bargaining agreements.

However, Mauk said the bill does provide a mechanism for existing contracts to be altered if the state auditor places a subdivision under fiscal watch or fiscal emergency. Under fiscal watch, future wages and benefits could be renegotiated but current pay could not be cut, he said. Under fiscal emergency, the agreements could be completely suspended and renegotiated.

The bill does not change the criteria for a government unit to be placed under fiscal watch or fiscal emergency.

 
 

 

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