Iowa House cuts off debate, approves collective bargaining bill

Three days into floor discussion of a bill to reduce public employee bargaining rights, Iowa House Republicans voted to cut off debate on House File 525 yesterday. At least 80 percent of more than 100 amendments proposed by House Democrats had not been discussed yet. The House proceeded to reject the remaining Democratic-proposed amendments in a quick series of votes, and the final bill passed 57 to 39. The House Journal (pdf) contains details on yesterday's debate, including all the roll calls. Most of the votes went along party lines. I was surprised to see one House Republican (Gary Worthan of district 52) vote with the whole Democratic caucus against final passage of the bill. I wonder whether he accidentally pressed the wrong button there, because he voted with the rest of the Republicans on ending debate and lots of amendments.

House Democrats were outraged by the Republican maneuver and the fact that the House switchboard wasn't working Friday morning (which House Speaker Kraig Paulsen said was an oversight). Jason Clayworth noted at the Des Moines Register, "Limiting debate without the prior agreement to both parties is rare but not unique. Democrats, for example, limited debate in 2009 on another union bill known as prevailing wage that would have setting standards for minimum pay and benefits on government projects."

Paulsen said the bill "addresses the cost of government in Iowa" by "leveling the playing field for taxpayers." I am so tired of Republicans scapegoating public employees for our budgetary constraints. Iowa is in better fiscal condition than more than 40 other states. In any event, there is "no correlation between state budget shortfalls and union negotiating laws":

"The thing that's driving budget shortfalls is the impact of the national economy on state revenues," said Elizabeth McNichol of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research group in Washington, D.C. "It's definitely other factors driving these shortfalls," rather than union agreements, she said. [...]

Five states - Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia - prohibit public employee union negotiations. Each of those states faces budget shortfalls that cumulatively amount to almost $20 billion, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the National Council on Teacher Quality say.

Texas, one of the states prohibiting public union negotiations, has one of the largest projected budget shortfalls for next year, figured as a percentage of the current budget.

Iowa is among states with one of the lowest projected shortfalls for next year.

Forty-five states face budget shortfalls for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Of the five states that do not face budget shortfalls, each allows some type of public employee union bargaining.

Iowa's public employees are paid less than their private sector counterparts when education levels, experience and hours worked are taken into account. Republicans tell us modest raises (about 3 percent per year) for state employees are unaffordable because they would cost $414 million over two years (if non-contract employees get the same pay increases). Yet David Osterberg pointed out this week,

The Iowa House has proposed cutting state income taxes by 20 percent. That would cost $350 million in 2012 and $700 million per year subsequently.

The governor has proposed lowering the top rate on the corporate income tax. That would cost $130 million in 2012 and $200 million per year subsequently.

The Senate and House have proposed adopting "bonus depreciation" rules. These new breaks for business would cost the treasury between $27 million and $83 million in 2011 and $99 million and $141 million in 2012.

While Republicans are selling House File 525 as a way to control government spending, the bill appears to be designed to undermine organized labor. It would shred binding arbitration and create new incentives for state employees not to join a union. In a statement yesterday, Iowa House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, "Like Wisconsin, Republicans in Iowa will stop at nothing to take away rights from police officers, fire fighters, state troopers, teachers, correctional officers and other hard-working Iowans. This bill to end collective bargaining is worse than the bill approved in Wisconsin earlier today." After the jump I've posted excerpts from a House Democratic Research staff analysis on the bill.

Senate Democratic leaders have made clear that House File 525 is going nowhere in the upper chamber this year. If Republicans gain a majority in the Iowa Senate in 2012, they will certainly revive this kind of legislation.

Members of Congress rarely comment on news from the Iowa legislature, but both Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Bruce Braley (IA-01) released statements on yesterday's Iowa House vote. I've posted those after the jump.

MARCH 14 UPDATE: Iowa Senate Labor Committee Chair Wally Horn confirmed that this bill won't make it out of committee in the upper chamber and is therefore dead for the 2011 legislative session.

From a House Democratic Research Staff bill summary on House File 525, March 7, 2011:

Section 1, Definitions:

"Bargaining unit" - Those who have not declared themselves free agents.

"Free agent employee" - A public employee who has signed a release declaring that they reject representation by an employee organization. By signing the release, the free agent would waive any claim or right or representation by the employee organization.

This undermines the power of collective bargaining. An employee organization through case law has the duty of fair representation and this would be contrary to the principle of exclusive representation. A union must represent everyone in the bargaining unit whether they belong to the organization or not. It would eliminate the purpose of collective bargaining by basing raises on favoritism or competition between employees. Administrative costs would more than likely increase since employers would have to figure out who is represented, and listen to each "free agent employee's" pay raise scenario.

Section 2, Declaring a "Free Agent":

Chapter 20.8, public employee rights, is amended to allow an employee to declare themselves a "free agent employee."

Section 3, Scope of Negotiations: The bill reduces the items from the list of items that can be negotiated when a contract is negotiated. Iowa is already considered a "limited scope" state, and HF 525 would impose even more restrictions. Stricken from the list includes items for "insurance" and "procedures for staff reductions." Currently retirement systems are specifically mentioned or clarified as a topic that is excluded from negotiations. The bill creates a list of items that cannot be talked about it negotiations, and undermines local control of negotiations. The list includes the following:

A. All retirement systems.

B. Health insurance or any other insurance.

C. Restrictions or limitations on outsourcing.

D. Any restriction on the right of the employer to lawfully consider any factor in a layoff.

Section 4, Changes to Binding Arbitration:

HF 525 changes the powers of an arbitrator during binding arbitration. Under the bill, an arbitrator's award would "not" be restricted to the final offers on each impasse item submitted by the parties involved. The current system is an all or nothing approach which encourages the parties to move toward the middle. This encourages voluntary settlement and has worked well. About 98% of all public sector contracts are settled voluntarily every year. This one word would completely undo the current process. The parties would be encouraged to be unreasonable in their proposals, knowing that an arbitrator could split the difference.

The bill adds that the arbitrator may consider additional information presented by each party in addition to the items that they are required to consider. This would seem to open up other topics to the arbitrator. The bill, however, restricts the ability of the arbitrator to consider past contracts. Not being able to consider past history of a contract would not allow both sides to consider economic conditions or deductions or raises that have happened in the past.

Current law allows a comparison of wages with other public employees doing comparable work. The bill expands items that the arbitrator must consider to a comparison of wages, benefits, hours, and conditions of employment with other public employees, including those not represented by an employee organization, and with those in the private sector doing comparable work. They are to give consideration to similar economic conditions where applicable. Being that there is information available on wages, but not benefits, through the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this may be a difficult task. In addition, there are many jobs that state workers do that are not done in the private sector, such as a Department of Human Services Worker who would have to rescue an endangered child. The bill does not require a comparison on education level. Many public sector employees hold a higher degree of education compared to the private sector.

The requirement to have the arbitrator consider ability of the public employer to finance economic adjustments and the effect on services is altered to exempt the raising of taxes from being considered. It also specifically deletes from the list the public employer's ability to levy taxes and appropriate funds from being considered.

It adds to the list, the efficiency of the public employer in its ability to carry out its functions. The public employer may be able to argue items not being efficient on non-essential to government. Finally, it also allows an arbitrator to make an award which goes beyond the terms of the final offer. Again, this would reinforce the incentive to take extreme positions rather than work towards the middle to reach an agreement.

Statement from Representative Bruce Braley, March 11, 2011:

"Today's action by the Iowa House of Representatives is a blatant attack on our state's middle class. At the very moment that our economy is showing signs of improvement, the Republicans in the Iowa House have thrown a punch to the gut of thousands of Iowa families. This bill is shameful."

Statement from Senator Tom Harkin, March 11, 2011:

Harkin: Iowa House Republicans Using Teachers, Public Employees as a Political Scapegoat

Passage of House File 525 a huge disappointment for Iowa's working families

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), issued the following statement after the Iowa House of Representatives voted 56 to 39 to pass a measure that restricts the collective bargaining rights of public workers.

"Following Wisconsin's vote earlier this week, I was hopeful that Iowa's House Republicans would choose a different path, and not resort to using our public sector workers - our friends and neighbors - as a political scapegoat.  Unfortunately, today they voted to strip Iowa's public servants of meaningful collective bargaining rights.  It is a shameful thing to do to those who work so hard for the public good, and it will only undermine the economic recovery of our great state.  

"Let's not forget who we are really talking about.  We are talking about the police officers and firefighters that put their lives on the line to keep our families safe.  We are talking about the elementary school teachers who make sure our kids know their ABCs.  Our public servants deserve respect - especially from our elected officials.  They did not cause the recession, and they do not deserve to be treated this way.

"Iowans have a very strong sense of community - they know that in tough times it's important to support your friends and neighbors and do all you can to lift people up, not tear them down.  Working families are facing unprecedented challenges, and it's time that we all come together to do whatever we can to help rebuild a strong middle class with good jobs, fair wages, and benefits.  My hope is that the Iowa Senate defeats this measure."  

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