Iowa House approves sweeping collective bargaining changes; Senate primed to follow

William Petroski and Brianne Pfannenstiel , Des Moines Register

Despite staunch Democratic opposition, the Iowa Legislature was headed Thursday towards final passage of bills that dramatically scale back a four-decades-old collective bargaining law for 184,000 public employees that Republicans contend is tilted against the state’s taxpayers.

House File 291 was approved by the House Thursday, while Senate File 213 was expected to receive final passage from the Senate later in the day following a marathon debate over two days. The House had adjourned shortly after 10 p.m. Wednesday, but Senate Republican leaders decided to forge ahead with an all-night debate Wednesday that continued during Thursday’s floor session. The Senate had convened at 9 a.m. Wednesday, which created some bipartisan weariness Thursday as the around-the-clock speech-making progressed

House and Senate Democrats have denounced the legislation, which was unveiled by Republicans last week after being developed behind closed doors. Democrats complained the measure was fast-tracked without sufficient study and public comment. They also said it dismantles a state law that has brought labor peace to Iowa since it was signed in 1974 by former Gov. Robert Ray, a Republican. In addition, Democrats have said they suspect wealthy, conservative donors from outside of Iowa influenced the legislation.

However, Republicans hold majorities in both chambers and there was never any doubt about whether the legislation would approved. Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican who has had repeated battles with public employees’ unions, is expected to sign the legislation. The bill takes effect as soon as it is signed.

Democratic lawmakers said they have been swamped with hundreds of emails, phone calls and letters from rank-and-file public employees opposed to the legislation.

“This bill is morally indefensible,” said Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, who warned the provisions will divide Iowans. He added, “This isn’t the Iowa way. We didn’t have to go down this path.”

Rep. John Forbes, D-Urbandale, said he had been seriously looking  at how the legislation would affect Iowa public employees.

“For many of us here today, this is going to be one of the largest or biggest votes you’re going to take here in the Legislature.. It’s going to be a vote that travels with you the rest of your life.”

Rep. Dave Deyoe, R-Nevada, chairman of the House Labor Committee, said he’s been getting a lot of support for the legislation from city and county officials and school superintendents. But he didn’t provide any names, remarking, “In many cases, some of these individuals really can’t be public because they’re in the midst of negotiations or soon to start negotiations.”

Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, the Senate bill’s floor manager, said the bill will restore control to local elected officials. He also told Democrats during debate that the legislation was not drafted by a secret committee, as they suspected, but it reflected his work with Republican legislators in cooperation with legislative staff.

“It is a bill by Schultz. I take responsibility for any actions,” Schultz said.

More than 1,000 people, mostly union members opposed to the legislation, descended on the Iowa Capitol on Monday night for a public hearing on the House bill. But the Iowa Senate’s galleries, which drew a stream of observers through most of Wednesday, were nearly empty as the lengthy debate continued into the wee hours of Thursday morning. Nearly all of the speeches during the debate were made by Democrats, while all but a handful of Republicans sat silently as Democrats berated them and their bill.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, has defended the procedures used in passing the bill, saying they fully comply with Senate rules. But Senate Minority Leader Robert Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, called it a “garbage process,”  adding it’s wrong to conduct an all-night debate so early in the legislative session when few people are watching, either in person or via the Internet.

“This is a joke. There was no reason to do an all-nighter here, except that you could,” Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, told Senate Republicans shortly before 8 a.m .Thursday. “You cheated Iowans last night. You cheated people the opportunity to pay attention to a really big change that you are ramming in here. You disrespected the people of the state.”

Many Senate and House Democrats also objected to procedural moves by Republican legislative leaders to effectively cut off debate, ensuring final votes on the legislation sometime Thursday afternoon. Several Senate Democrats said limiting debate violates a Senate tradition and Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Dubuque, said the GOP moves were inappropriate.

“We won’t be silenced after this,” Finkenauer said. “We will continue to fight.”

However, Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, accused Senate Democrats of using delay tactics, suggesting they have had plenty of opportunity to address the legislation since it was introduced Feb. 7.  He also complained that Democrats were “papering” the bill with dozens of amendments, a common strategy used opponents of a bill.

“There has been an incredible amount of patience. But all that patience has gotten has been stalling,” Chelgren said.

Under the similar Senate and House bills, most public-sector union contract negotiations would be limited only to base wages. Unions would be banned from negotiating with their employers over issues such as health insurance, evaluation procedures, staff reduction and leaves of absence for political purposes. However, public safety workers such as police and firefighters would have a broader list of issues to be considered in contract talks. But all unions would be barred from having union dues deducted from public employees’ paychecks and unions would need to be re-certified prior to every contract negotiation.

The legislation also changes the arbitration process when contract talks reach an impasse. Currently, the union and management would make its best offer and an independent arbitrator would be required to choose the most reasonable of the two. The legislation requires an arbitrator to consider the employer’s ability to finance any wage increase. It also puts a cap on how much an arbitrator can raise wages. The wage increase could not exceed whichever is lower: 3 percent, or a percent equal to the cost of living increase outlined in the consumer price index.

Dix told reporters last week the legislation is about local control, saying it will allow school districts to keep the  best employees in the classroom and  the best employees on the front lines, and to provide better service to Iowans. “In short, it is a better deal for Iowa,” he said.

Branstad has also praised the legislation, saying, “The fact is I think Iowans want us to be fair and they want a system that is not antiquated and isn’t titled in one’s favor, but one that is fair to  all Iowans.”

But Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, called the legislation a “union busting bill” that will “throw teachers under the bus.”

Bolkcom praised public employees during the debate. He said they take care of Iowa’s roads, ensure drinking water is safe, inspect restaurants and hotels, and promptly respond when fire alarms are triggered.

“Do you have any clue what you are doing here?”  Bolkcom asked Republicans.  “You can’t make a move without a public employee. We should be celebrating what they do instead of kicking them around.”

In response to questions by Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, who asked about the impact of the legislation upon Polk County government, Schultz said local officials shouldn’t have any concerns about the bill. The Polk County Board of Supervisors is officially registered as against the measure.

“The beauty of this bill is that Polk County can continue to do what they are doing,” Schultz said.

But Bisignano, a retired Polk County human resources director,  strongly disagreed. He called Schultz’s remarks “absurd” because of limits on subjects that can be negotiated by unions.

The Senate bill includes an amendment approved early Thursday that would make several changes to the original bill. The amendment removes language making most state workers “at-will” employees who could be fired without cause. It reinstates language saying employees must be fired “for cause.” It also allows certain items — such as grievance procedures, seniority procedures and seniority-related benefits — to be eligible for negotiation if both unions and employers agree to discuss them.

In addition, the amendment declares that motor vehicle enforcement officers are public safety employees. It also clarifies that workers have the right to appeal a civil service commission’s decision in district court.

Some of the most bitter debates on the bills involved unsuccessful efforts by Democrats to add correctional officers, state university police officers and other public employees to the public safety category, granting them extra rights for contract negotiations.

Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mount Pleasant, a retired maintenance employee of the Iowa State Penitentiary at Fort Madison, recounted stories of prison employees who suffered serious and life-threatening injuries at the hands of dangerous inmates.  He said it was insulting that correctional officers are not considered public safety employees under the bill. Similarly, Sen. Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford, a retired Johnson County sheriff’s officer, spoke emotionally of working at grim crime scenes with University of Iowa police officers who are also not considered public safety employees by the legislation.

State Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said exempting only some public safety workers amounts to a “divide and conquer” strategy by Republicans.

“I just don’t understand how you can look at the people who work in our state and say some of you deserve protection and others of you don’t,” Mascher said. “That just does not make sense to me at all. It is un-Iowan. It is not who we are.”

A major impetus for the bill has been the high cost of health insurance for state employees, many of whom pay as little as $20 a month for their share of premiums. A new analysis by the nonpartisan Iowa Legislative Services Agency examined health insurance costs for certain executive branch agencies, judicial branch offices and legislative branch offices between 2005 and 2015. It found that health insurance costs for those employees soared from $143.2 million to $235.7 million, an increase of $92.5 million, or 64.6 percent. But some unions representing local government employees pointed out that their costs for health insurance are significantly higher than for state employees  and state union leaders said they receive good health insurance by making concessions on wages in contract talks.

Passage of the collective bargaining bill was made possible by sweeping  Republican victories in November’s elections. This meant the GOP began the Iowa Legislature’s 2017 session holding majorities in both the Senate and House, as well as the governor’s office, for the first time since 1998. As a result, Republicans have full control over the state budget and legislative policies and it eliminates the possibility that Democrats can block conservative bills.