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Iowa House vote

Some Democrats in the Iowa House cast their votes vocally, standing as they do, against changes to the state's collective bargaining law for public employees.

DES MOINES – Majority Republicans used a “time certain” procedural move Thursday to expedite legislative passage over minority-party objections of a controversial rewrite the state’s 1974 collective bargaining law with Gov. Terry Branstad waiting to approve the measure.

“In my 25 years, I’ve never seen anything like this — ever,” said Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, who called rushed GOP action “shameful” by using a “mean-spirited, rigged system” to circumvent the normal legislative process. “This is absolute drunk on power.”

Minority Democrats and independent Sen. David Johnson of Ocheyedan predicted working Iowans will not forget how four decades of relative labor-management harmony was “gutted” by “unprecedented” fast-track procedural maneuvers to end debate and force votes after a marathon floor debate that spanned three days.

“They’ve been working hard, and I’m appreciative. It is a very monumental undertaking,” said Branstad, who indicated he planned to sign the measure into law yet this week.

“Obviously, they’ve had a lot of debate on a lot of things, and I think everybody’s had the opportunity to express their opinion. It’s a way to finally get to a vote. Otherwise, you could have a filibuster that can go on and on and one with the same people speaking again and again,” Branstad said. “This is a difficult and contentious issue, but I think it’s something that’s really needed, especially in the health-care area.”

After hours of debate, legislative Republicans cut off talk in the House at noon and the Senate at 2 p.m. and voted to send Branstad legislation that scales back the rights of public-sector workers have had to negotiate over wages, benefits and working conditions. Representatives voted 53-47, with six Republicans joining 41 Democrats in opposition, to approve House File 291 and send it to the Senate where it was passed 29-21 and sent to the governor’s desk.

Under the time-certain procedure, majority-party leaders were able to call up amendments for up-or-down votes without debate that disposed of pending amendments to the GOP-produced proposal that first surfaced at the Statehouse last week.

After the Senate vote, Democrats shouted “shame,” and people in the Senate gallery booed loudly.

Senate Democratic Leader Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said the collective bargaining rewrite amounted to “a bait and switch” by Republicans, who countered it was an effort to bring local control to contract talks, streamline the process and give taxpayers a seat at the table.

“These much needed reforms will restore balance to Iowa’s outdated collective bargaining laws,” House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said in a statement. “These reforms are intended to rebalance the collective bargaining system which has not been updated in more than 40 years. These are common sense reforms that preserve our system of collective bargaining and ensure Iowa’s taxpayers have a seat at the table.”

Hogg took a different stance, telling Senate spectators and an internet audience “today was a travesty of the democratic system.” He accused majority Republicans of using “Russian-style” tactics to fast-track a bill that “takes away health care security for 184,000 Iowans.”

Hogg predicted Thursday’s action “will not stand because it’s not want Iowans’ want” because it “was railroaded through.” He also gave out the governor’s office telephone number and encouraged people to call Branstad and tell him not to sign the bill.

"You feel that it's inappropriate to work through the night," said Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa. "You feel that what we're doing is somehow rushing it through except that the Senate procedures — the Senate timeline has been followed without exception."

He said opponents had tried to “stall” the process to get to final passage by “papering” the measure with amendments and spending hours on each issue.

"We've said we'd like to get the work of the people done," he said.

House File 291 would limit most public-sector union contract negotiations to base wages, cap rulings in arbitration by the cost of living, and eliminate 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.

“This is about union-busting. That’s what is happening here,” Johnson said.

The major piece of legislation was drafted without bipartisan input and moved “at light speed” through the legislative process, according to Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, who called for a reasoned and thoughtful discussion of the complicated 68-page proposal.

“This is a farce. This is disappointing, it’s depressing, and it’s disrespectful. What is the rush? This is a joke,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City.

“There are a lot of losers today,” Bolkcom added in pushing to keep intact provisions that have guided contract talks for Iowa’s 184,000 public employees at the state, local and school district levels. “But I think the biggest losers are the people of Iowa who have been silenced by an unprecedented procedure.”

Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, the Senate bill's floor manager, said majority Republicans 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.

Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, defended the legislation from accusations that it was written by national conservative advocacy organizations and political donors.

“This bill was written by Iowans, for Iowans,” said Holt, who floor-managed the House bill that he said was the result of “collaboration with many people across this state, a collaborative effort by Iowans for Iowans with input from experts.”

“Why do we need this bill? Because we have listened to those locally elected officials and others, and we have heard how the process has tied their hands,” Holt said.

He said the bill would create sustainability and efficiency in local governments and “unleash innovation.”

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.

House Democrats objected to the bill to the bitter end of debate, which was halted at noon Thursday.

Democrats accused Republicans of failing to listen to the thousands of Iowans who voiced their opposition to the bill and for attacking the state’s public employees.

“God bless those that vote no, and thank-you to my public employees. I’m so sorry,” said Rep. Timi Brown-Powers, D-Waterloo.

Democrats indicated they think there will be public backlash to the bill that Republicans will feel in future elections, starting in November 2018 when half of state senators, all House members and the governor’s office will be on the ballot.

“Rep. (Steve) Holt, Speaker (Linda) Upmeyer, Rep. (Dave) Deyoe, Gov. (Terry) Branstad, when this is over and the votes go through, you will go out and tout how great that you got rid of (collective bargaining laws),” said Rep. Phyllis Thede, D-Bettendorf. "It’s nothing great. It is mean-spirited, it hurts everyone, and you made a choice to do this."

(Erin Murphy contributed to this story.)