Issue 2 debate sharply divides votersWritten by Brigitta Burks | News Editor | BBurks@toledofreepress.com
The Nov. 8 election will likely be remembered for a divisive debate over a state bill that limits unions’ collective-bargaining rights for public employees.
Voting “no” on Issue 2 would repeal Senate Bill 5, while a “yes” vote would uphold it. Opponents of Issue 2 say Gov. John Kasich’s bill puts citizens at risk and that public employees are not the reason for Ohio’s budget issues. Proponents of Issue 2 say the bill will benefit taxpayers and the school systems and prevent layoffs.
One of the oft-repeated arguments against Issue 2 is that it makes it more difficult for police and fire departments to negotiate for better equipment, therefore emergency response could suffer. If union leaders cannot talk about staffing levels in negotiations, the level of safety could suffer, said Dale Butland, spokesperson for Innovation Ohio, a think tank organization that promotes public policies.
“This is going to cut back on the safety, not just of the police officers and firefighters themselves, but the general public that depends on these folks to come,” he said.
Issue 2 proponents believe that budgetary constraints could cause emergency response to falter if Issue 2 were not to pass.
“It’s a far greater likelihood it would take police and fire longer to respond because they couldn’t afford their contracts,” countered Connie Wehrkamp, spokesperson for Building a Better Ohio, the pro-Issue 2 group.
Staffing remains a local worry.
“Our biggest concern is minimum manning,” said Wayne Hartford, president of Toledo Firefighters Local 92.
Legally, the Toledo Fire Department is required to have a manning of 103 firefighters, but Hartford said more would be useful.
Issue 2, in addition to contract negotiations, has taken a toll on firefighters, he added.
“I truly think morale is low on our job,” Hartford said, adding that although workloads have increased, pay has not.
Former fire chief and Toledo Mayor Mike Bell made a controversial move when he endorsed Issue 2, a move that Hartford said “could very well” affect whether the union supports him in the future.
“Not that the fire department thought it’d be the golden child. We didn’t expect that, but coming from his background, we at least expected him to be sensitive to our causes,” Hartford said of Bell’s stance.
Bell stood by his decision.
“My personal opinion is, I believe Issue 2 is needed because government does not have a restart switch and we need a restart,” Bell said.
“If our financial position isn’t solid, we’re not going to have a solid police department, fire department or any other department.”
Despite the firefighters’ opposing stance, Bell said he does not believe the move will cost him his political future.
“For every one negative comment, I get about 20 who say they understand,” Bell said. “They may not agree, but they understand. Issue 2 allows for some concessions so that right now, if we were allowed to get health care and pension picked up, we probably wouldn’t have to lay anybody off.”
He added that the administration wouldn’t do anything to put citizens’ safety at risk.
Issue 2 asks government employees to pay 15 percent of their health insurance and contribute 10 percent to their retirement pensions instead of using public funding for those expenses. According to Building a Better Ohio, the pro-Issue 2 group, a private-sector worker pays 31 percent on average for their health coverage.
“It goes back to taxpayer fairness. If the average taxpayer is paying 31 percent, it’s fair,” Wehrkamp said.
Innovation Ohio’s Butland said 94 percent of public employees already pay the amounts being proposed.
“If Senate Bill 5 were only about everyone paying 10 percent [of pension], 15 percent of [health care] … you could have done that in a couple pages, but Senate Bill 5 is 304 pages. What are the other pages about? They are about crushing unions and punishing workers,” he said.
Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (D, District 9) said the percentages public employees are expected to contribute are lower because their pay is often lower.
“They are certainly not overpaid and a lot of time people don’t understand how dangerous the work they do is; whether you work in a prison or are a highway patrolman, teachers don’t have an easy role today, either,” she said.
Another argument against Issue 2 is that union workers have already made sacrifices for the economy. Wehrkamp disagreed.
“The unions have shown many times, they are not willing to make concessions in hard times,” she said. “If concessions made already were enough to fix the problem, we wouldn’t be having that debate.”
Melissa Fazekas, spokesperson for We are Ohio, an anti-Issue 2 group, said union concessions have saved the public $1 billion in concessions.
“It just shows the current collective-bargaining laws we have work,” she said. “When given the opportunity to come to the table, they (union leaders) are problem solvers.”
Robert Densic, the founder of Back to Basics, a local Tea Party group and a Toledo Free Press contributor, said he would rather have elected officials making decisions than union leaders.
“I do not have a say in who the union bosses are,” he said. “That is the definition of taxation without representation.”
Organizer Chuck McCune of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 8 said he believes industry could go elsewhere if Issue 2 passes, adding it would bring damages to both private and public unions.
Performance in schools
An argument in favor of Issue 2 is that if layoffs in schools were based on performance instead of seniority, an overall improvement in education would occur.
“This debate has been going on for a long time. Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, is supportive of performance pay,” Wehrkamp said, adding that teacher evaluations would be based on multiple measures, not just test scores. Schools would also be able to implement programs or adviser-training to help struggling teachers.
But Fazekas said there is a concern that a merit-based scale could lead to favoritism because of a lack of definition.
“There is reference to merit-based pay [in the bill], unfortunately there’s no real outline, no structure or process to how it will work,” she said.
Rep. Matt Szollosi (D, District 49) said a performance scale could have serious implications.
“I reject the argument that we should go back to the good ol’ boys’ network when promotions were given based on the color of your skin or gender,” he said. O