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John Kasich & Scott Walker on Ohio's Uphill Battle Against Govt. Unions

Six reasons why collective bargaining reform will likely fail in the Buckeye state.

1:21 PM, Nov 6, 2011 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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Although the polls show Ohio's collective bargaining reform headed for repeal in a referendum Tuesday, Governor John Kasich has no regrets he signed the legislation last March. “Everybody’s got to face this sooner or later,” Kasich told THE WEEKLY STANDARD in a phone interview. "This is part of an overall plan to get reform from top to bottom. It’s extremely difficult. No one has tried this level of reform, that I’m aware of in the country, including Wisconsin."

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"People will learn from this," Kasich says. "And we’ll see what happens on Tuesday."

If an October 25 Quinnpiac poll is anywhere close to being accurate, the law will be struck down on Tuesday. “It’s going to lose because this is a very large complex piece of legislation," says Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown. "It has two major components. One component requires public employees to contribute [at least 10 percent of their wages for their pensions and 15 percent of health insurance premiums]. And that is popular. But the other part of the law—the part that the debate has most focused on—is about limitations on the ability of public employees to collectively bargain and certain other union rules." 

The Quinnipiac poll showed voters opposed the law—which was never implemented—by a 57 percent to 32 percent margin. But dig a little deeper and what the poll really shows is that voters don't seem to understand what "collective bargaining" means. Fully 60 percent of Ohio voters support "requiring public employees to pay at least 15 percent of their health insurance premiums," but 56 percent of Ohioans oppose "limiting collective bargaining for public employees."

Here's the problem with that: In order to require public employees to pay more for their health insurance and pensions (which is popular), collective bargaining must be limited (which is unpopular).

For whatever reason, it has proven difficult in states like Wisconsin and Ohio to convey the message that limiting collective bargaining is necessary to help local governments manage their budgets. Perhaps when voters hear "collective bargaining" they simply think it's the ability of workers to petition management for better pay and benefits. What collective bargaining really means is that a union effectively has power to veto changes to union members' benefits--forcing local officials to choose between laying off public workers or raising taxes.

And yet, while a similar level of opposition to limiting "collective bargaining rights" existed in Wisconsin, the reform has succeeded, so far, in the Badger state. Why are the Ohio reformers much worse off? There are at least six significant differences between the two states.

(1) As Kasich emphasizes, Ohio's law is more comprehensive. It would affect police officers and firefighters, while Wisconsin's reform exempted those groups. The Ohio law "places our police and our communities at risk," according to one pro-union ad. In another ad, a paramedic says the law will cause "slower response times" during emergencies.

(2) Wisconsin Republicans were unified behind collective bargaining reform. Only one state senator voted against Walker's reform, but six state senators abandoned Kasich. That helped unions make the case that opposition to the bill was bipartisan.

(3) The Wisconsin law had been in effect for months--yielding positive results--by the time state senators faced recall elections in August, while the Ohio law was blocked once unions obtained enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot.  

According to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, this is “the number one reason why they’re having trouble with their referendum" in Ohio. Prior to the Wisconsin recall elections, districts were able to balance their budgets pretty painlessly, while unions refused changes to their benefits in some districts where collective bargaining remained, forcing hundreds of teacher layoffs.

"The mayor of Milwaukee, who ran against me for governor, had said in March this is going to kill us, it’s going to be devastating, it’s going to be awful for our budget," Walker said. “Well, the day before the recall election, August 8, they had to acknowledge [a new report showing] their net savings for the city of Milwaukee came in the range between 11 and 17 million dollars per year.”

“I hear from voters all the time who say to me, I didn’t know why you did this, but you know what I really, really like the fact that the reforms are working," Walker said. 

(4) While both states faced protests, Ohio's was relatively calm compared to Wisconsin's. The spectacle of Wisconsin Democratic state senators fleeing to Illinois to block a vote and protesters occupying the Capitol building for weeks on end may have sparked a backlash.

Or, in Scott Walker's opinion, the protests and accompanying media attention helped Republicans better explain the case for limiting collective bargaining. “I don’t know if there was a backlash," he says. "I think what it did more than anything is that it drew more attention and as people paid more attention over time. They got to see how rational the reforms were and how irrational the opposition was.” 

(5) Collective bargaining reform was a more important tool needed to help Wisconsin solve its deficit problem. "The largest single piece of our budget is aid to local governments" and school districts, says Walker. Closing Wisconsin's $3.6 billion deficit, therefore, necessarily required a large cut in state aid to schools and local governments.

Not so in Ohio. "If this thing were to go down it doesn't affect our [state] budget," Kasich says. Ohio Republicans closed an $8 billion budget shortfall without cutting aid to local schools or raising taxes. But aid to local governments will be reduced from $1.3 billion to $925 million, according to Ohio's Office of Management and Budget. If the collective bargaining reform is repealed, it just means that local governments will have a more difficult time absorbing those cuts and balancing their budgets. If local unions refuse to pay more for health insurance and pensions, town officials will have to choose between raising taxes and laying off public workers (for which the unions will blame Kasich).

“If you look at state taxes, we’re improving that situation," Kasich explains. "But when you combine that with local taxes we just kind of shoot to the top of heavy tax states.” Although Ohio's population growth has remained flat over the past decade, local taxes have increased from from $14.1 billion in 1999 to $20 billion 2009, according to Ohio's Office of Management and Budget. 

“Local public employees in some cases pay zero for their health care and their guaranteed pensions," says Kasich. "It’s important to hand tools to local communities so they can control their costs."

Kasich's reasoning makes sense. But when voters see that the state budget has already been balanced without the collective bargaining reform in place, they may not see why it's necessary.

(6) The biggest reason why the collective bargaining reform survived in Wisconsin but likely won't in Ohio, according to Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown, is that "in Wisconsin, [voters] can’t repeal the law, [they] can only repeal the person." Wisconsin Republicans narrowly won a proxy battle over the collective bargaining bill in a Supreme Court race last April, and held on to the state senate in August. But "collective bargaining" was not the only issue in those races. If voters had a clean shot at Walker's reform in a referendum it might very well go down.

Brown points out that Ohio's law is a mixed blessing for Kasich. While voters have the power to repeal his collective bargaining reform, he cannot be recalled. "Perhaps in 2014, Ohio will be in better fiscal shape, and he'll be able to say this is what I did," says Brown. “But today he’s not very popular." Of course, it may difficult for Kasich to regain his popularity with unions unchecked an local governments in Ohio struggling to balance their budgets.

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