Saturday, February 26, 2011

Dems push labor-bill debate all night long on HB 117

24 Feb 2011 07:27 PM PST

House Democrats hectored their Republican counterparts all night Thursday and until nearly dawn this morning over proposed limits on public-employee unions’ bargaining power.

The Democrats spent a total of 15 hours objecting to House Study Bill 117, which would block public unions’ ability to negotiate over health insurance issues and layoff procedures.

Democrats offered 48 amendments during the meeting of the House Labor Committee, which started work on the bill Thursday afternoon. None of the amendments had a shot at passing, but the discussions lasted nearly until dawn.
Both sides acknowledged that the bill is unlikely to become law, because it probably won’t be debated in the Democrat-controlled Senate. But the House Democrats said they wanted to take a minority stand against what they see as a union-busting proposal, similar to the one roiling Wisconsin.

“We’re willing to go all night here, tomorrow, through the weekend, however long it takes,” Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt, D-Cedar Rapids, said Thursday evening.

In an interview during a break, Committee Chairman Lance Horbach called the Democrats’ tactics “politics as usual.”

Horbach, R-Tama, said his side was willing to make concessions, including possibly deleting a section of the bill that would allow public employees to declare themselves “free agents,” who would not be represented by a union. But he said Republicans were determined to keep the ban on negotiating over insurance coverage because public employers need more flexibility to deal with that costly issue.

“I think the taxpayers and the people of Iowa will see that we’re actually trying to do something and not just make a political headline,” Horbach said.

The Democratic amendments included a proposal to put off all changes in the collective-bargaining law until the issue could be thoroughly studied. Other amendments would have let unions and government employers bargain over how managers would decide whom to lay off if there was budget trouble or fire if there was misconduct. One amendment would have given teachers’ unions the right to bargain over class sizes. Other amendments would have given unions the right to bargain over reimbursement for work clothes or over payment for mammograms, dental services or care for fibrous growths on kidneys.

The legislators didn’t bother taking time for dinner.

Democrats peppered the one-sided debate with words such as “shameful,” “disheartening” and “outrageous” as they described the Republican bill. They also liberally used the phrase, “Let me reiterate.”

The conversation took novel turns as the night wore on. At 11:05 p.m., Rep. Todd Taylor wondered aloud if it would be OK for workers to negotiate away their Presidents’ Day holiday in return for steel-toed boots. “That could be a win-win,” the Cedar Rapids Democrat said. Just to be clear, he noted that the example was hypothetical.

Rep. Bruce Hunter of Des Moines, the top Democratic member of the committee, acknowledged early in the evening that none of the amendments stood a real chance of passing. He also agreed with Horbach that the overall bill almost surely would die in the Senate anyway. But he said it was worthwhile for Democrats to stand up in the House committee to demonstrate disagreement with the measure.

Throughout the proceedings, most of the nine Republicans on the panel stared blankly into their laptop computers, catching up on e-mail or checking out the Internet. At one point, Hunter noticed that Rep. Greg Forristall, R-Macedonia, was wearing headphones. “A point of order,” Hunter said. “Could we ask Rep. Forristall to pretend he’s paying attention?”

Forristall smiled sheepishly as he took off the headphones. However, Rep. Linda Miller, R- Bettendorf, continued to play “hearts” card games on her computer. She propped her feet up on a chair and turned her back partway from the Democrats and their debating points. Miller and her GOP colleagues looked up every once in a while to take part in another 9-5 vote to defeat an amendment.

The handful of onlookers included Danny Homan, state president of AFSCME, which represents 40,000 government workers in Iowa. Homan said he didn’t ask the Democrats to pull their all-nighter, but he appreciated the effort. He said the state’s current labor law works well. He added that 98 percent of the time, governments and public-employee unions negotiate contracts without needing to go to arbitration. “Unless one side or the other is bringing a gun to the table, the two sides are voluntarily agreeing to the terms,” he said during a break in the meeting.

At 12:30 a.m. today, the Democrats said they believed House rules required the meeting to end at midnight. Horbach disagreed, and he said he’d called the House speaker for confirmation of his opinion.

Hunter, the leading Democrat, then moved that the panel adjourn until 8 a.m. The bleary-eyed Democrats said “Aye” to his motion. The bleary-eyed Republicans shouted “Nay!” They didn’t explain if this was because they sincerely wanted to keep going, or if they were just reflexively voting against anything their rivals proposed. Either way, they prevailed.

The Democrats were undaunted. They dug deeper into their pile of amendments, and the meeting ground on.

The proceedings were held in the old Supreme Court chambers, whose old-fashioned wall clock is broken. The hands constantly indicate the time is 7:27. For a while this morning, it appeared that the meeting might still be in session the next time the clock was correct.

But the amendments finally ran out and the debate ended at 6:05 a.m.

On a 9-5 vote, the committee passed the bill, in the same form it was in before the Democratic amendment-shower began Thursday afternoon.

Hunter told the Republicans the argument was worth it. “You’re attacking the workers of the state of Iowa, and when you attack the workers of Iowa, we are going to fight for them,” he said. He promised an even bigger fight if Republicans bring the bill to the House floor.

The Republicans did not respond. Several of them shook hands with the Democrats, then headed to breakfast.