There’s no green beer in sight at the Statehouse this evening, but Iowa House Republicans appear drunk on partisanship with their latest push to slash workers’ collective bargaining rights. Republicans brought House File 549 to the full floor late Tuesday afternoon, a bill that would significantly change the way public school employees negotiate their contracts. Their bargaining rights would be considerably weakened by reducing their abilities in arbitration decisions.
The legislation clearly would be dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate, so the necessity in bringing up such a controversial and divisive bill is suspect. House Democrats consistently assailed it as a distraction tactic by Republicans to stall on the education funding battle, where GOP lawmakers refuse to budge from their 1.25% supplemental funding increase amount. There’s always concern that it could be part of a larger multi-year strategy to achieve what Wisconsin has done in greatly curtailing workers’ bargaining rights and ability to organize.
Representative Bruce Hunter warned Republicans in an earlier committee meeting on the bill that bringing it to the House floor would trigger a massive fight. Democrats made good on that promise by proposing amendment after amendment that had no chance of passage, adding in long speech-a-thons from multiple Democratic members. Many observers believe the debate could go on until midnight.
“Put simply, HR 549 is a bad bill,” Representative Abby Finkenauer said in Democrats’ first comments on the bill, offering a strike-after amendment to add teacher prep time to arbitration negotiation topics, just as she did in committee. “It’s a bill that goes after our teachers. Which, by the way, 78% of teachers in our state our women.” Representative Beth Wessel-Kroeschell warned that the current Republican proposed increase could cause 20 layoffs in the Ames district. “Our teachers are not the problem, they are the solution,” Wessel-Kroeschell said in statements on the amendment. “We’re beating up on teachers instead of taking care of our kids and schools,” Representative Sharon Steckman commented.
“Our children deserve a world class education, not larger class sizes or fewer opportunities,” Representative Patti Ruff said on a later amendment that increased state aid to 4%. “They deserve more from us here at the statehouse … How do we expect world class schools with a third world budget?” Ruff was later called for a point of order for arguing that Democrats were the only ones standing up for schools and education at the Statehouse. She recalled numerous contacts from constituents who wanted a 4% or larger number to adequately fund schools, and noted she hadn’t heard from a single person supporting only a 1.25% increase. Democrats’ three amendments, including the one raising education state aid to 4%, were all ruled not germane and not allowed a vote by the Republican leadership.
It was perhaps not the wisest scheduling move to anger unions on St. Patrick’s Day, when everyone is already wearing AFSCME green. The public workers union sent out an all-call to their members to rally at the Capitol in opposition to House File 459. Teachers, AFSCME members, and other labor supporters began filling seats in the balcony around 5:00 PM.
For a time yesterday it appeared a planned Republican amendment would expand the bill’s scope to slash arbitration abilities for all public employees. However, it later became clear that its focus was contained to all school employees. Democrats had harshly criticized the bill’s original wording that only changed teachers’ bargaining rights, but left alone support staff and administrators. At a committee hearing two weeks ago, Representative Todd Taylor called it “a bill designed to bully teachers,” and Representative Finkenauer pointed out that it disproportionately punished female employees. Republicans’ solution to that issue was apparently to just take away all public school employees’ bargaining rights.
After the round of Democratic amendments were not given a vote, Democrats went to caucus once Republican Representative Greg Foristall introduced the amendment to the bill that would expand the restrictions to all school employees. The caucus meeting is expected to last several hours as a means of punishment, and the entire debate will likely go late into the night. Starting Line will stick around at the Capitol to see how things develop. Check back throughout the night for updates, and follow us on Twitter at @IAStartingLine.
Democrats offered several amendments after returning from caucus around 9:00 PM. Several were similar to other amendments proposed earlier, but this time it was to the Republican amendment to the original bill. All were ruled non-germane after two Democrats spoke on the issue. Surprisingly, Republicans moved to adjourn until tomorrow morning at around 9:45, rather than continue through the over a dozen Democratic amendments on the docket.
The House reconvened Wednesday morning at 8:00 AM, and House Democrats continued their filibuster-by-amendment effort. Rep. Bruce Hunter has split his amendment into 16 parts, with each one adding in different topics of discussion that teachers and school employees could negotiate on in the arbitration process.
“I question whether this amendment is germane,” was a common refrain from GOP Rep. Greg Foristall, as amendment after amendment was shot down. Again, no Republican member has spoken at length on the merits of their original bill (though they haven’t had much of a chance yet). It will be very interesting to see if they press their own rationale for restricting collective bargaining rights, or if they’re content with just having the vote.
A little before 10:00 AM, the House got through all the amendments and are now on debate for the actual bill, HF 549. So far 18 Democrats has requested to speak on the final debate, all of which are allowed ten minutes.
“What are we doing?” Representative Bruce Bearinger asked. “What has taken us from not honoring our public school teachers anymore?”
“There is no logic in your attempt to tie these two things together,” Representative Running-Marquardt said of arbitration rights and school funding.”You are shortchanging our kids and when that message doesn’t go well for you, next you decide to go after our teachers … Quality education, our teachers, our children – this has long been our utmost of priorities in Iowa. [Teachers] are not to blame for Republicans’ plan to underfund our schools.”
“Having this bill here today gives pause to my constituents who ask me, ‘why?’ Why are they doing this?” Representative Art Staed commented. “Let’s stop the assaults and the diversions. Let’s stop this now. Vote no on House File 549 and immediately do our jobs in this House by funding our schools with at least a 4% allowable growth rate.”
“This is not in the best interests of our community or our children, in my opinion,” said Representative Curt Hanson. “This bill will not move Iowa’s education forward.”
“In my district the teachers go above and beyond their duty every day,” remarked Representative Charlie McConkey of Council Bluffs. “We should work to make it sure that all parties in contracts are on a level playing field, and House File 549 does just the opposite … This bill will shortchange Iowa teachers, will shortchange our kids, and will shortchange our education system.”
“Iowa’s kids deserve an education that prepares them to be lifelong learners,” Representative Liz Bennett said. “The legislation before us today is a distraction and a waste of time.”
“I think that it’s unfortunate because it really comes off as an attack on teachers,” Representative Chris Hall explained. “What it isn’t is the overdue funds that our public schools deserve.” He noted the conversations with teachers he’s had back in Sioux City, and told the chamber that one school just told him that they will be laying off four aides because of the current funding debate in the Statehouse.
“Current law has been working!” Representative Phylis Thede implored to the chamber, asking the majority party where they heard that the current arbitration rules weren’t adequate.
After nearly every House Democrat rose to speak against the legislation, Representative Foristall gave the closing remarks a little after noon, the only Republican to speak in favor. The bill passed on a party-line vote, 56-41. The bill now goes to the Senate, where Labor Committee chair Senator Tony Bisignano says it has no chance of being brought up.
Best Tweet so far from the debate:
— Brianne Pfannenstiel (@brianneDMR) March 17, 2015
by Pat Rynard