LINCOLN — Wisconsin reached some resolution this week in the state’s bitter fight over the collective bargaining rights of public employees.
On Friday, the Iowa House advanced a collective bargaining measure, a first step toward that Legislature’s predicted showdown.
And what about Nebraska?
Stay tuned; it’s still a work in progress.
A group of state senators and other parties held another long meeting in Omaha on Friday concerning collective bargaining. The group has been meeting regularly to try to hammer out details of a compromise to resolve complaints in the Cornhusker State about the current system of deciding labor disputes involving public workers.
One legislator involved in Friday’s meeting, Dennis Utter of Hastings, emerged briefly to say that no resolution would come Friday, after weeks of meetings and negotiations. But he said he remained confident that the leader of the talks, Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, and the “working group” would have a proposal soon.
“Sen. Lathrop is working very hard to put together a bill that represents a real change to the whole process,” Utter said. “I think he’s getting close to that.”
Overhauling collective bargaining and changing the state agency that resolves labor impasses, the Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations, have been tagged as two of the Nebraska Legislature’s top concerns for 2011.
Weeks of protests by labor members at the Wisconsin State Capitol have displayed how strongly public employees feel about their collective bargaining rights. With states slashing budgets because of recession-reduced tax revenues, wages and benefits paid to public workers have been in the spotlight.
In Nebraska, the importance of collective bargaining was emphasized again this week as three state senators, including Utter, designated CIR proposals as their priority bills. A proposal being crafted by Lathrop and his working group also was prioritized by the Legislature’s Business and Labor Committee, of which Lathrop is chairman.
Senators get only one personal priority bill each session, so they pick carefully. Only rarely do they select competing proposals on the same topic, because only one proposal will advance in the end. The priority designation also can dissuade senators from killing a measure, keeping the issue available for debate.
“That’s a very loud statement that members of the Legislature want to see something done,” said Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, the speaker of the Legislature.
Flood said he plans to “take the temperature” of the working group’s progress by Tuesday and hopes to see a proposal unveiled by the end of the month.
Some senators expressed frustration that a compromise hasn’t been reached, but the speaker emphasized the complexity of changing a system that hasn’t had substantial changes in a half century.
“It makes the budget look easy at this point,” he said.
That says a lot: State legislators this year are trying to close a nearly $1 billion budget gap — a record high — between estimated revenues and projected spending.
Lincoln Sen. Tony Fulton has been trying to change the CIR the past two years. At the last minute on Friday, he chose his CIR proposal, Legislative Bill 564, as his priority bill.
LB 564 would reduce the CIR to an advisory body, and city councils, county boards and school boards would make the final decisions on whether to accept or reject the CIR recommendations. Some conservative members of the Lincoln City Council and the capital city business community support LB 564.
Fulton said Friday that he’s frustrated that Lathrop’s working group has not yet put forward a plan. “It puts the senators at a disadvantage,” Fulton said. “We don’t know what’s going to come out of the committee.”
Omaha Sen. John Nelson prioritized his CIR proposal, LB 664, which has the support of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. It would abolish the CIR and end collective bargaining by state workers.
“That’s kind of the extreme. It’s pretty much what they’ve done in Wisconsin,” Nelson said. “I’m sure there would be amendments to soften it or get to the middle of the road, but that’s my base starting point.”
Utter prioritized his proposal, LB 482, which is backed by the League of Nebraska Municipalities and the State Chamber of Commerce. Among other things that bill would require the CIR to give preference to comparing similar public jobs within Nebraska when reaching salary and benefit decisions. The CIR also would have to consider private sector wages and benefits, which it currently does not.
Looming over the collective bargaining rights and CIR discussion is Gov. Dave Heineman, who has repeatedly said that he won’t sign a bill unless it makes “meaningful, significant and comprehensive” changes to the current system. He has not been specific publicly about what that means.
The governor also has said that some state business and taxpayer groups are considering an initiative petition drive to put the future of the CIR to a vote of the people if substantial changes aren’t made by state lawmakers.
Lauren Kintner, Heineman’s policy research director, has sat in on the Lathrop-led meetings. Representatives of the state chamber, the League of Municipalities, education groups and state workers unions also have participated in the talks. Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, a former CIR judge, has been involved.
Lathrop, a practicing attorney, was unavailable for comment Friday, but earlier in the week said the talks were focusing not just on the criteria for deciding labor disputes, but also on who would make those decisions.
“That’s still an ongoing discussion. I believe we’re getting very close,” he said. “It’s my expectation that my bill will address the concerns of the cities, the state and the school districts.”
No one, Lathrop said, wants a resolution more than he does.
“It’s been my full-time job for at least two months,” he said.
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