By Reginald Fields
The Plain Dealer
The Ohio House could vote this week on a controversial collective-bargaining bill that will set up a politically charged voter referendum that could linger into next year’s presidential election.
Senate Bill 5 sharply restricts collective- bargaining rights, ends binding arbitration and bans worker strikes for all state and local public employees — including safety forces — and is backed by Republican Gov. John Kasich and most of the GOP-controlled state Legislature. The bill narrowly cleared the Senate this month, and on Tuesday, a House committee has scheduled a vote to send the measure to the floor.
The outnumbered Democrats have countered by threatening to team up with labor organizations to place a referendum on the ballot as early as this November to allow voters to decide whether to stick with the Republican proposal or overturn it.
The pitched battle could energize Democrats as they gear up for next year’s major general election. Or, as Republicans see it, the referendum — which could cost unions as much as $20 million — could sap resources that otherwise would go toward promoting Democrats and indirectly help the GOP slate.
“Senate Bill 5 is a classic example of a partisan overreach,” said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern. “You see who is motivated by this issue — firefighters, police officers, teachers, many of whom did not vote for Ted Strickland. This is giving us a great opportunity to make them realize ... that we are, in fact, the party of the middle class and working families.”
Strickland is the former Democratic governor who lost to Kasich in November.
“I think the unions are making a mistake,” said Bob Bennett, GOP strategist and former longtime state Republican chairman. “This is a referendum that I think is being relished by Republicans. We’ve done our homework. It’s not an issue that they can win, especially when you start comparing them to the private-sector workers.”
Stephen Loomis, president of the Cleveland police officers union, said his group is working with other public-safety unions across the state preparing for the referendum.
“We’re already planning on that,” Loomis said. “We’re hopeful the House takes a dead-honest look at this thing and votes its conscience, but I don’t think that is likely. We’re preparing to run a campaign all summer long.”
Ohio is one of several states at the forefront of a national debate over collective-bargaining rights. It also is among a handful of states that allow voter-driven referendums to overturn actions of the General Assembly within a certain time frame.
If Republicans move the bill and Kasich signs it before April 6, it would force the unions, aided by Democrats, to seek the referendum this fall, according to state rules. If the GOP misses that deadline, the unions would have the option of seeking the referendum this year or in November 2012.
The moment the union takes out petitions to gather the 231,000 signatures needed to get on the ballot, the law cannot be implemented until a statewide vote is held, unless the unions fail to gather enough signatures before a July deadline. For strategic purposes, it appears better for Republicans to push the measure through before April 6.
Also, Democrats think they would have a distinct advantage by having the referendum on the 2012 ballot. Their candidates, including U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, who is up for re-election next year, would be able to campaign against Senate Bill 5 and serve as representatives for the referendum as they stump across the state.
Even Republicans agree that this issue could stir the Democratic base and boost voter turnout at a time when Democratic President Barack Obama is seeking re-election and Kasich’s popularity may still be languishing — as even he has predicted — because of a tough budget cycle for the state.
“There is a presumption that if we put it on this fall, it would be better for one party over another — namely mine,” said House Speaker William G. Batchelder, a Republican from Medina. He said he isn’t so sure the timing matters because he thinks there will be strong support for Senate Bill 5 at the polls in either year.
“It’s conceivable that there will be a heavier turnout for people who have strong feelings in favor of that legislation,” he said. “I have a lot of friends who belong to the labor organizations involved, and some of them are quite unhappy that they pay $800 a year in dues. They don’t think they get much.”