Iowa legislators have begun what may be a long debate over changes to Iowa’s collective bargaining law for more than 180,000 teachers and government workers.
Senator Jason Schultz, a Republican from Schleswig, opened Senate debate on the bill at about four o’clock this afternoon.
“I’d like to thank my colleagues in the senate for what has been and will likely be a spirited discussion about Senate File 213,” Schultz said. “…I understand the people of our state are passionate about these issues. That is why there has been so much energy in this building.”
About two hours later, Democratic Senator Tony Bisignano of Des Moines drew cheers from the crowd watching debate when he called the bill “ugly.”
“The only good thing to come out of this election is that we’re getting rid of this governor who’s been a mean-spirited governor to public employees,” Bisgnano said, in reference to Republican Governor Terry Branstad and people seated in the senate gallery erupted with cheers, whistles and applause. “And hopefully the new governor will look at the people of Iowa as their friends and their neighbors and their family because you cannot say you love Iowa and you hate Iowans.”
Senator Nate Boulton, a Democrat from Des Moines, said workers have “valid concerns” about the legislation.
“This bill and its impact on our communities will be historic,” Boulton said. “The debate we are having right now is about the very soul of our state.”
Boulton and other critics say the bill will set in motion a yearly “certification” process that will be the “death knell” for public sector unions. Supporters of the bill say union wages and benefits have gotten too expensive. Schultz said the bill puts new “accountability” in the contract negotiating process.
“I want the teachers, the snowplow drivers and other public employees to know I appreciate your contributions to our state,” Schultz said. “Your hard work is valued. You are not the target of this. We are seeking to make a better Iowa, including you.”
Senator Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo, noted the debate on the bill began on February 14.
“I find it a cruel irony that today on St. Valentine’s Day you choose to break the hearts of workers by really massacring their rights in the workplace,” Dotzler said.
Schultz said the bill does not get rid of public workers’ pensions and it requires governments that have been offering health care benefits to continue to provide coverage.
“There are a number of people using scare tactics to rally opposition to this bill,” Schultz said. “…This bill will not mean mass firings for public employees.”
Critics say while health insurance benefits would continue, public workers may have to make significant premium co-payments. Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, called the bill “horrendous.”
“Stop and think about what you’re doing, McCoy said. “I beseech you to oppose this rubbish and return it to Wisconsin from where it came.”
Iowa’s collective bargaining law gives public workers the right to bargain for benefits, wages and other workplace issues. In exchange, employees give up the right to strike. The Senate debated the bill until about 8:30 p.m. and is expected to resume discussions tomorrow.
The Iowa House began debating the bill shortly after 8 p.m. Representative Steven Holt, a Republican from Denison, opened by saying taxpayers are at a “disadvantage” today.
“They are at a disadvantage because the current system requires an arbitrator to consider the state or local government’s ability to raise taxes as a factor in the determination of the approval of pay and benefit packages,” Holt said, “thus creating the potential that the heavy hand of government will plunge ever more deeply into taxpayer wallets.”
Representative Bruce Hunter, a Democrat from Des Moines, accused Holt of describing an “alternate reality.”
“I apologize that I’m not in a too good of a mood right now because attacking the rights of 180,000 workers of the state of Iowa kind of gets me a little mad,” Hunter said. “And that’s what this bill does.”
Representative Abby Finkenaur, a Democrat from Dubuque, criticized a Republican lawmaker who was wearing headphones at his desk during the debate.
“Wake up and pay attention…This is important,” Finkenaur said. “Get off your computers. Get off your phones and pay attention because I know our Iowa workers and their families are paying attention to this debate tonight.”
House Republicans announced earlier this afternoon that they intend to scale-back their proposal, but the debate has not reached a point for a vote on that alternative. The changes would let subjects like seniority rights and how to handle workplace grievances be discussed during contract talks– but only if both the union and managers agree those issues should be negotiated. In addition, Holt said the GOP’s new draft plan aims to reassure public workers that layoffs and firings should be done for “proper cause.”