It is impossible to argue that public employees in the state of Ohio can continue to expect to live in the style to which they have become accustomed, given that most taxpayers who are supporting that lifestyle have already made larger concessions to the economic realities of the day.
But it is equally impossible to argue that the only — or even the best — response to that disparity is contained in Senate Bill 5.
SB 5 is an unwieldy document that fills 56 pages of newspaper print, and much of that references hundreds of other pages of law that would be repealed. Like much of what passes as thoughtful legislation today, it is more than anyone could be expected to read and comprehend.
The bill is a testament to Gov. John Kasich’s contention that his narrow victory last November over Ted Strickland was nothing short of a mandate for one-party rule in a state that voted blue in 2006 and 2008 and red in 2010.
There is little argument that Ohio today leans more Republican than Democratic, and last fall’s election results reflect that. It should also have been obvious to any voter who had been paying attention that Kasich knew where he wanted to take the state. Kasich was on the record with almost all of his initiatives, with the notable exceptions of his plan to privatize the Ohio Turnpike and his newfound enthusiasm for expanding gambling opportunities in the state.
Still, it would have been perfectly possible and far preferable for Kasich to use a scalpel rather than a machete in carving up government. If he had, it is unlikely that we would be addressing SB 5 in a referendum. A bill more focused on reining in abuses and reducing costs for local schools and governments would not have inspired more than 900,000 Ohioans to sign petitions to put the issue to a vote.
But a more focused bill would not have been in keeping with Kasich’s interpretation of his mandate, and it would not have fit the governor’s plan to balance the state budget.
A large part of that plan was to reduce state disbursements to local schools and other entities, with the assurance that local governments would be able to balance their own budgets through the money they’d save by cutting their personnel costs. It was a master stroke that allowed Kasich to declare victory over the budget monster while using the bulk of SB 5 to shift the heavy lifting to city and village councils and township and school boards.
There was an elegant simplicity to the plan, but few complicated problems are subject to simplistic solutions. The proper response to the governor’s overreaching is for the voters of Ohio to send him and the state’s legislators back to the drawing board. And they can do that by voting no on state Issue 2.
There are reforms that are necessary, abuses that must be eliminated and money to be saved. But those things can be accomplished through less sweeping legislation, in a more bipartisan way — and without inviting years of legal wrangling and labor unrest that would move the state backward at a time when Kasich says he is trying to move it forward. For instance:
Require all state and local employees to pay a minimum of 10 percent of their salaries toward their pensions and a minimum of 15 percent of the cost of their health-care coverage. That can be accomplished in a two-page bill that should get bipartisan support in the General Assembly.
Eliminate the stockpiling of vacation time and sick leave for purposes of cashing-out at retirement. Another couple of pages.
Provide for greater transparency in public pensions by giving the public access to information on individual retirees. This would be more contentious, but chiefly because it would make the retirement packages of the legislators and other elected officials public. If every public employee had only one public job in his or her lifetime, estimating their retirement benefits would not be difficult. But many jump from part-time to full time positions, from one government office to another, making their pension benefits more a guessing game than a reliable computation.
Binding arbitration as an alternative to public safety strikes has eliminated strikes, but the process is flawed. Arbitrators too often search for a compromise, when, sometimes, one side should win on the merits and the other should lose. Legislative hearings should be held to show a pattern of arbiter abuses beyond the anecdotal. There are alternatives to arbitration, including a system that would allow the voters to be the ultimate arbiters by placing a proposed contract on the general election ballot.
Sending a message
Both sides of the Issue 2 debate have relied largely on advertising campaigns that appeal to the emotions or to long-held biases. That reflects the weaknesses of SB 5 as much as anything, and it speaks to the wisdom that votes would show in voting no on Issue 2 Tuesday. By so doing, they will send an emphatic message to the governor and to the Republican and Democratic delegations in the General Assembly that it is time for them to do the hard work that is necessary to eliminate abuses of the taxpayers and still treat with dignity the employees who police our streets, put out our fires and teach our children.