State budget fires rage across the Midwest
Wisconsin isn’t the only state with protesters and union uprisings. Lawmakers across the Midwest are considering legislation that would eliminate collective bargaining for state and private employees, establishing “right to work” laws and changes to education funding at the K12 and university level; all leading to angry citizens and public employees on both sides of the issues.
The Badger State has received much of the attention. Initially, Gov. Scott Walker’s unflinching stance on the contents of his budget repair bill stirred interest nationwide, and taking over headlines when the Wisconsin 14 fled to Illinois on February 17. The Democratic senators have repeatedly said they took the action to “slow down the process and allow the stakeholders time to read and understand the bill.” Senate Bill 11 would eliminate collective bargaining in all areas except for wages to public union employees, with the exception of of local police and firefighters and the State Patrol.
Our bill also contains provisions to increase the amount public employees contribute to their pensions and health care premiums, to alter the eligibility for medical assistance programs, to sell off state-owned power plants with no bids and other items that Gov. Scott Walker says will fill a $137 million budget hole for the remainder of the current fiscal year and to set the table for cost savings in subsequent state budgets.
Rep. Jerry Torr introduced a bill in the House to make Indiana a “right-to-work” state, eliminating a union’s ability to impose dues on workers who choose not to join. Torr said having “right-to-work” status will make Indiana more attractive to private industry that would go to other states without union conditions. According to Torr, it will also make union leadership more responsive to all workers in a business, not just the dues-paying employees.
The legislation would make it a Class A Misdemeanor to require a person to pay union dues or become a member. It would not change public employees’ status in the state; Indiana state employees do not have bargaining rights, which were removed by Gov. Mitch Daniels when he took office in 2005.
The Indiana legislature is also discussing school choice vouchers, which would allow tax dollars to be used by parents across the state at private charter and religious schools.
Indiana’s squabbles jumped to national attention when its Democratic Asssembly members pulled a page from the Wisconsin 14’s playbook; they fled to Illinois, taking up residence in Urbana-area hotels.
The Hoosier 35 said the Republicans measures were “anti-child and anti-worker and there needs to be sufficient time for the people to examine the length and depth of what is being attempted here.”
Daniels is not supportive of the Indiana Bill 1468, the “right-to-work” bill, and has said he will not send state police after the Hoosier 35. But if the legislation is not voted on by today, 25 other bills would be put in jeopardy, including Daniels’ pet project – school choice.
The Indiana Assembly has 100 members and needs 67 members present to vote on bills with a fiscal impact.
Protesters crowding the Indiana statehouse may have had the desired effect. Late on Wednesday, the Speaker Pro Tempore asked to rescind the “right to work” bill from consideration; however, the school choice bill is still in play.
The Hoosier 35 remains on the lam even though the “right to work” bill has been pulled, but according to Rep. Matt Pierce (D-Bloomington), speaking to Fox News, there are still more assaults on workers among the 25 remaining bills.
Senate Bill 5, supported by Republican Governor John Kasich, was introduced to help close an $8 billion hole in the next biennial budget. It would eliminate tenure when considering layoffs, require state employees to pay 20 percent of their health insurance premiums, end salary schedules, end the ability to strike among public employees and institute merit pay for some of those same employees.
The bill would affect 42,000 state workers and 19,500 workers in the Ohio university and college system. It would end protections public employees have had since 1983.
While seeking to limit public employees, the bill also proposes to eliminate the Ohio estate tax. That tax currently generates $60 million annually to the state and $240 million annually to local units of government.
While Wisconsin and Indiana’s fleeing legislatures have slowed or turned the course of legislation, the Ohio legislature doesn’t need the Democrats to pass either bill, so any leverage they have by leaving the state is null. Within the 99-member Ohio Assembly and 33-member Senate, the GOP holds majorities and quorums, all that is needed to vote on both bills.
Kasich’s comments on the subject mirror Walker’s.
“We will look at privatization, we look at killing things that don’t work. There are just no options that are off the table, except tax increases because we can’t stomach them,” he said on National Public Radio in January.
But a spokesperson from Policy Matters Ohio disagrees that eliminating bargaining rights will solve the state’s budget woes.
“Ohio’s budget problem is a revenue crisis, caused by a weak economy and ill-advised tax reductions that have deprived the state of needed revenue,” said PMO Executive Director Amy Hanauer. “Eliminating collective bargaining is not going to solve a revenue crisis.”
The protests will continue in Ohio over the weekend, since Senate Bill 5 isn’t scheduled for a vote until early next week.
Michigan workers have gathered at the capitol in Lansing to protest three potential changes to state law: removing binding arbitration from fire and police unions; eliminating the prevailing wage requirements for all union members; and developing “right to work” zones throughout the state.
Rep. Joe Haverman (R-Holland) said removing arbitration from fire and police union negotiations will give more flexibility in determining wages and benefits, since the arbitrator is limited to looking at only what the contract language says, and not the financial condition of the community in question.
Michigan’s prevailing wage law has been in place since 1965 and the unions feel it guarantees fair pay and ensures jobs for union construction workers. However, the GOP wants to eliminate the wage protection to save up to 10 percent in costs to contractor and developers, which Republicans believe would lead to the creation of jobs.
And developing “right to work” zones throughout the state would create islands where unions would not be able to collect dues from non-members.
A union plumber admits the state is not ending collective bargaining by changing prevailing wage and adding the zones, but he does see both issues as an opening volley at employee unions.
While many Midwestern protests concern changes to union benefits and bargaining, college and university students in Minnesota have been quietly protesting cuts in state aid and increases in their tuition at the state capitol in St. Paul.
The gathering has been called “Rally to Restore Affordability” and is in response to Gov. Mark Dayton’s cuts to higher education funding to balance the state’s budget.
However, there are potential bills on Minnesota’s legislative list such as freezing public worker wages and curtailing pensions, as well as amendments that could weaken unions. The Republicans in Minnesota could try to advance these measures, but it will be difficult, since Dayton is a Democrat.
Another state on fire with protests over attempts to limit bargaining rights is Iowa. Some of the protests are in solidarity with the Wisconsin employees, but Iowa workers have issues before them that have led to a march on Des Moines.
Republican Governor Terry Branstad and the Republican Iowa House have proposed changes to the state’s Chapter rule that oversees public employees. Branstad is unhappy that the previous governor approved employee contracts following the November elections, which he feels gave all the control to the public employees.
“Labor has had it totally its way,” Branstad said to The Globe Gazette of Mason City, IA. “They rolled over the previous governor and that is going to change.”
The Republican proposal in Iowa is to eliminate automatic step raises based on seniority to members of public employee unions, to allow the state to consider comparable public and private salaries when determining union pay, to eliminate the need to find positions for union members if their jobs are eliminated due to privatization moves and to require employees to contribute 30 percent of their health care premiums.
According to the State of Iowa, 84 percent of public employees, or 22,336 workers, pay nothing towards their health insurance costs.
Unlike Wisconsin, Iowa’s Legislature is split with a Republican House and Democrat Senate. While Branstad’s proposal has passed out of the House Committee on Labor, Democrat Senators have said they would not be introducing similar legislation in their chamber.
The only state in the upper Midwest not experiencing protests over bargaining rights or budget cuts is Illinois. It also has a sizable budget deficit: $12 billion in its general fund, $6 billion in carry-over debt and an underfunded state pension pool of $80 billion.
But Governor Pat Quinn (D) and the Democrat Legislature chose not to cut public employee pay and benefits or to increase contributions to pensions or health premiums. Instead, Illinois leaders approved a 66 percent increase in the states income tax. The move increases the income tax rate from 3 percent to 5 percent. Illinois has also imposed a 2 percent spending increase limit.
Quinn signed the increases into law a few weeks ago. The only protesters seen in Illinois since then have been the Wisconsin 14 and the Hoosier 35.
So when will this all end? Will votes continue to be stalled by runaway legislators? Will majorities stubbornly vote the party line without meaningful debate? Where will the next flame of protest spark? In this combustible economy, the flames separating public and private employees are sure to spread beyond our little corner of the world.