Government

Iowa Senate debates collective bargaining through the night

Top Republican and Democratic leaders of the Iowa Senate along with staff members confer in the well early Thursday morn
Top Republican and Democratic leaders of the Iowa Senate along with staff members confer in the well early Thursday morning during a marathon floor debate that began on Wednesday and ran -- with limited breaks -- throughout the day and overnight on a bill that would significantly rewrite Iowa's decades-old collective bargaining law. (Rod Boshart/Gazette Des Moines Bureau)
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Thursday morning update: DES MOINES – The Iowa Senate pulled a rare all-nighter Wednesday into Thursday, holding a marathon floor debate over a controversial measure that rewrites the state’s longstanding collective bargaining law.

Senators launched a multi-hour discussion where day turned into night and then back into day again as minority Democrats offered dozens of amendments in hopes of convincing majority Republicans to modify provisions of a bill that would significantly reduce public employee bargaining rights.

GOP senators did move off their initial proposal by offering some concessions in consultation with majority Republicans in the House that removed some items from the list of topics prohibited in negotiations and reinstated “proper cause” for employee suspensions and discharges among eight proposed changes they say resulted from discussions with Iowans via forums, emails, phone calls and committee work.

“I think they’re trying to perfect the bill as they go. That’s kind of normal, that’s what happens when you have a bill of this consequence. That’s not surprising,” Gov. Terry Branstad told reporters on Wednesday. “We’re working with them and have been throughout the entire process, working with both the House and Senate. I think it’s important that we need to restore some fairness and balance.”

Independent Sen. David Johnson of Ocheyedan joined Democrats in questioning the origin of the measure they viewed as a politically motivated document crafted by “a secret cabal” of special interests intent on busting unions and gutting collective bargaining.

“This bill was e-dropped in from the puppeteers,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City. “You guys are the pawns of these billionaires. That’s what we have here.”

Republicans rejected the secrecy contentions but they also rejected each change offered by Democrats, prompting Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, to question whether at 3 a.m. whether GOP senators were “sleep drunk and we don’t know what we’re doing because clearly your arguments don’t make even make sense.

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“Sleep drunk, you can make that excuse down the road when your constituents turn on you,” Dotzler added.

House File 291 and Senate File 213 – if approved and signed by Branstad – would limit most public-sector union contract negotiations to base wages while eliminating such issues as health insurance and supplemental pay as mandatory items for bargaining.

Iowa’s 1974 collective bargaining law currently permits public workers to bargain for wage, benefits, and other workplace issues with impasses resolved by binding arbitration in exchange for employees give up the right to strike.

“We’re headed down a bad, bad path here,” said Dotzler in pushing to keep in tact provisions that have guided contract talks for Iowa’s 184,000 public employees at the state, local and school district levels. “I think there are a lot of things in this bill that can be fixed, but I know you won’t fix them,” he said, “but the public deserves to hear what’s wrong.”

Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, the Senate bill's floor manager and chair of the Senate Labor and Business Relations Committee, said Republicans who hold majorities over Democrats of 59-41 in the House and 29-20 in the Senate with one independent had agreed to remove grievance procedures, seniority procedures, seniority-related benefits and release times from the list of prohibited items – making them eligible for negotiation if both unions and employers agree to discuss them.

The Republican amendment also clarified that workers would have the right to appeal a civil service commission’s decision in district court and that an employer is only required to provide health insurance coverage to full-time employees.

Democrats tried unsuccessfully to expand the exemption provided for many public safety workers to other employee groups, but Republicans only agreed to change the threshold for exempted groups to qualify as “public safety” employment from 50 percent of employees to 30 percent and added motor vehicle enforcement officers to the list of public safety employees.

Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, called the debate “a farce” on a bill that “looks, smells and reads vindictive.”

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Democrats said it was obvious that the governor and GOP legislators were "out to stick it to AFSCME (the state's largest public employees' union)."

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Earlier post:

DES MOINES — Iowa lawmakers put in a full day Wednesday talking about making large-scale changes to Chapter 20, the public employee collective bargaining law.

Senators even cast a few votes as majority Republicans turned back an effort by Democrats to scrap the GOP rewrite of a 43-year-old labor law in favor of a study of public employment health care reform.

Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, said he offered the study alternative and a separate amendment to treat public employees like private-sector bargaining units because majority Republicans were scuttling a system that has worked for four decades in favor of a move into “uncharted waters for labor law.”

The Republican plan “cuts and guts” collective bargaining for 184,000 Iowa public employees, Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, said during debate that continued well into the evening in both chambers.

She and her colleagues spent the day talking about the first of about 80 amendments to the proposal that would significantly reduce public employee bargaining rights.

The bill — “corporate tissue paper,” according to Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt, D-Cedar Rapids, “is an attack on human rights, breaking (workers’) human rights at the bargaining table.”

The bill is “baloney … absolute garbage,” added Rep. Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, who frequently is mentioned as a potential 2018 Democratic candidate for governor. If passed, the collective bargaining changes would “wipe out the middle class.”

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“This bill is hard on workers. It’s bad for families. It’s bad for Iowa,” Prichard said.

So bad, “Jesus would be a ‘no’ vote,” said Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton.

Senate debate was focused on a Boulton amendment calling for a study of health care reform. Senate Minority Leader Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said the study would remove the uncertainty for about 180,000 public employees and their families who, if Senate File 213 is enacted, would have no say in their future health insurance decisions. With the study, there would be a promise that coverage would be offered but in some yet-to-be disclosed way.

“You’re creating one big question mark, and you’re creating a lot of fear in the state because the bill does not say what’s going to happen,” Hogg said.

Public employers would be providing health insurance even though it no longer would be a mandatory bargaining issue, said Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig. Unionized employees likely would be paying a greater share of their insurance costs that would be more in line with private-sector employment.

“Freedom and change is scary, but that’s what we’re offering here,” Schultz said.

However, he backed away from a concept being pushed by Gov. Terry Branstad to create a larger risk pool of public employees at the state, county, city and school district levels that would help drive down costs for all the entities that chose to participate.

Schultz said health care pooling could be done at the state level, but it would take legislative action to expand that to local public entities.

“So you’re not currently engaged in any discussions with the governor’s office about a statewide health care pool for public employees?” Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, asked Schultz.

“No,” replied the Schleswig Republican, who is managing SF 213.

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“Do you believe this language gives the governor and local elected officials unilateral authority to implement that program?” Danielson continued.

“For state employees, that could be, for all others — no,” Schultz replied. “I would stand with you and oppose a mandatory statewide health care program that would force all of our local folks into it.”

Independent Sen. David Johnson of Ocheyedan offered a “tri-partisan” compromise in the spirit of former Gov. Robert Ray, who signed Iowa’s 1974 collective bargaining statute into law. Johnson’s proposal would halt what he called “union-busting” in favor of directing the state’s Public Employment Relations Board to establish a public employees collective bargaining study committee that would report its findings next January.

Republicans rejected that idea.

Meanwhile, House members debated a strike-after amendment by Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines, that added public safety to the scope of bargaining.

Before it was voted down 55-40 at 10:10 p.m., Rep. Phyllis Thede, D-Bettendorf, called the GOP opposition to the Hunter amendment evidence “Iowa has joined other states that have sold its soul to a corporation.”

It was part of frequent criticism by Democrats that the GOP was taking marching orders from outside groups that financed their 2016 campaigns. The bill, Democrats said, was written by the American Legislative Exchange Council and Koch Brothers-financed conservative groups. They said the bill’s language was almost identical to that of bills in other states, but didn’t offer any evidence that ALEC was involved.

Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, denied any conversation or collusion with ALEC.

“Every word in this bill was created here in Iowa, yes sir,” he said in answer to a questions from Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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