3/21/08

Iowa Dems say 'Union Yes'

Iowa lawmakers pushed ahead Thursday to expand public employee union negotiating powers despite mass outcries from opponents that clogged lawmakers' phone lines at times. Critics said the proposal would strip power away from local elected officials and management staff, and could raise property taxes if expensive union proposals are forced on governments.

Des Moines officials, for example, said House File 2645 could pave the way for a scenario in which residents could see a 7 percent increase in taxes, or roughly $69 a year for a $150,000 home.
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But advocates noted there is little or no proof that the 27 other states with similar types of laws have encountered higher taxes because of it. The proposal, they say, focuses squarely on improving work conditions.

"That argument is a red herring," Joe Twarog, a teacher at the Labor Center at the University of Massachusetts, said about the increased-tax theory. "People used that same argument to fight child labor as well as health and safety laws. Those are old, old, old arguments."

Iowa's public employees have what is known as "limited scope" union negotiating powers, meaning their representatives have the power to negotiate on only a few issues, such as wages and job classifications.

This legislation would open negotiations to a much wider range of issues. Some states have had such laws in place for more than 70 years, and advocates say they promote a stronger work force.

Many lawmakers initially considered House File 2645 to be a noncontroversial bill that would make minor changes in Iowa's collective bargaining laws. But an amendment proposed Tuesday afternoon, a day before debate began, extended bargaining powers.

Republicans complained that the proposal was offered at the last minute and that the public was being shut out of the typical input process. House Republicans purposely dragged out debate for more than 12 hours Wednesday and Thursday as a way to hold up the legislation and give the public more time to digest it.

"This is making legislation a secret," said House Minority Leader Christopher Rants, a Sioux City Republican. "They're going to jam this thing through before the public knows what's being debated."

Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, a Council Bluffs Democrat, said the proposal "makes modest changes" in the law that dictates public employee union negotiations. He did not directly answer a question about why debate was seemingly on a fast track. "Exaggeration is a tool of the minority," he said.

Unions have pressed lawmakers for more power at the negotiating table for at least two decades. Now that Democrats are in control, the leaders have chosen not to resist this year, said Republican Sen. Mary Lundby of Marion.

"The Democrats won the majority with union help. You've got to pay some of those bills back," said Lundby.

The labor-crafted bill would mean management would employees could finally sit down as equals on all issues, advocates said.

It would open the door for more negotiations but wouldn't guarantee union gains, said Ken Mertes, president of a 450-member union representing workers for the city, schools, roads and libraries in the Sioux City area. "It was a 30-year-old law and needed an improvement," said Mertes, of Communications Workers of America Local 7103.

Cathy Glasson, president of Service Employees International Union Local 199, which represents 2,200 members in Iowa, said the bill is a way to improve services provided to taxpayers. "By allowing these workers a little more input at the bargaining table, we're increasing the quality of public services," she said. "It's a critical bill, honestly."

Des Moines locals could, for example, negotiate for items such as health insurance for city retirees and minimum staffing levels at police and fire departments.

But if the city were to lose in arbitration, it would cost $3 million a year for the insurance and $3 million for overtime for police and firefighters, said City Manager Rick Clark. Such a result would trigger a 7 percent property tax increase, he said.

Polk County Supervisor Robert Brownell estimated that if unions end up with certain gains thanks to this bill, it could quickly cost Polk property taxpayers "between $3.5 million and $4 million without even breaking a sweat."

Union leadership could push to staff the new Polk County Jail with civilians and for health insurance for county retirees. An arbitrator could end up requiring both.

Brownell, a Republican up for re-election in 2008, said the threat of arbitration means local governments either will have to make stiff concessions or risk big taxpayer-funded losses.

"The problem with binding arbitration is it's a job that's decided by a guy who's not elected by anybody," Brownell said. "It's a roll of the dice."

By law, arbitrators must look at government entities' financial means before choosing which priorities they'll be required to meet, said Brad Hudson, a lobbyist for the Iowa State Education Association. Arbitrators can't force a government entity to go beyond its budgetary allotment or go into bankruptcy, he said.

Also under the bill, Iowa school boards would lose much of their authority to determine issues, including scheduling, class size and early retirement benefits.

The House approved the proposal Thursday in a 52-47 vote split along party lines.

Senate leaders said they were hoping to consider the bill Thursday but Republicans were stalling the procedures necessary to begin debate.

By 10 p.m., the phones that kept two Senate operators very busy all day had quieted, and the Republicans, who want Democrats to agree to a public hearing and to postpone debate until Monday, seemed ready to hole up for the weekend. Senate Minority Leader Ron Wieck of Sioux City said they ordered ham for Easter Sunday dinner at the Statehouse.

(desmoinesregister.com)

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