Hey, gang, remember SB 5?  Yep, it’s still out there.  Still pending in House.  And making State Senator Frank LaRose the most powerful legislator in the State of Ohio right now.  This isn’t going to script at all for the GOP. 

You see, Kasich came out of the election and declared a sudden interest in major collective bargaining “reforms” that he never discussed much during the campaign.  In outlining the issue, Kasich mandated that “reform” had to have number of key components in it.  One of those mandatory components was that binding arbitration had to go: not amended, ended.  Kasich, however, never offered any real alternative to binding arbitration.  Turns out that was a major unforced error on his part.

Shannon Jones, for reasons nobody can figure out except she’s an opportunist who craves the limelight, was tasked with rolling out what was once called the GOP Senate’s top legislative priorities this year.  Her bill originally banned collective bargaining for state employees entirely.  It whipped unions and progressives at levels not seen since 2008 or 2006.  And because Jones drafted the bill in secret, they didn’t bother to organize support for the bill at all.  They figured a quick legislative sneak attack would carry the day.  Again, another unforced error by Kasich and his GOP allies in the legislature.

But public outcry forced Jones’ hand to retreat the bill some.  But now a new problem arose: what do you replace binding arbitration with?  Jones and the State Senate decided to allow a process in which the government’s legislative body gets to break all ties between the government and labor.  I can’t believe any of them honestly thought this alternative passed the smell test, but they did, mostly because the Senators wanted to move on and get out of the glaring intense spotlight and onto to the State budget.

So SB 5, what was once called the Senate GOP’s top legislative priority, passed the Senate by one vote after the GOP was forced to agree to some changes in order to win over the critical 17th vote provided by freshman Senator Frank LaRose.  SB 5, though, limped to the House having been raised by a single-parent for no other State Senator dared to add their name to Jones’ bill—a rare thing to see for such a major piece of high-profile legislation.

House Speaker Bill Batchelder is living a lifelong dream.  Once considered somewhat of an outlier among his own colleagues as part of the “Caveman Caucus” in the 1980s-1990s, Batchelder has seen his Republican Party take a rightward lunge to the point where he could be the Speaker of the most conservative House in Ohio history.  So conservative, that it probably is further to the right than the State Senate, which traditionally had always been the more conservative body, even during prior Republican House rules.  Batchelder is widely regarded by both sides of the aisle as being as shrewd politically as he is the intellectual heft of the conservative movement in Ohio.

But you don’t become Speaker without understanding how to count votes and parliamentary procedure.  Initially, they wanted to get SB 5 passed before the budget was even introduced, because the budget is very time consuming and expected to be as controversial, if not more, than SB 5.  Second, Kasich was counting on citing SB 5’s passage as a tool he was giving cities to deal with the massive cuts in funding his budget was going to propose.  Therefore, the plan was to have SB 5 be the law of land right as the budget was being introduced.

But then labor started organizing a referendum campaign to repeal whatever passed.  There is intense internal partisan debate on both sides of the aisle which party benefits from having the referendum in 2011 and 2012.  The prevailing thought in Republican circles is that the party should avoid giving Obama a huge GOTV vehicle by having the SB 5 referendum on the ballot next year as it could be for Democrats what the same-sex marriage ban amendment was for social conservatives was in 2004.  So, in order to prevent that from happening, Batchelder knows that SB 5 must be able to be signed into law by the first week of April.   However, Batchelder also committed that the House wouldn’t rush passage and would hold three weeks of hearings in response to public criticism that the Republicans were railroading the bill in without serious consideration and debate.

That basically meant that Batchelder had to make sure whatever changes the House makes to SB 5, it’ll get enough votes in the Senate to agree to them to avoid a conference committee that would delay passage of the bill past the first week of April.  Although passage in the House was assured, the form the bill took in the House depends on what it believed the bare majority in the State Senate would accept.  This means that Frank LaRose, a freshman member in the State Senate, has suddenly become the most powerful legislator in Columbus because the entire outcome of SB 5 depends on keeping his support.

Batchelder also knew that the Senate’s “solution” to the binding arbitration couldn’t stand.  But the more the House examined the issue, the more they realized how difficult it was to come up with a true replacement for binding arbitration.  They considered letting the courts decide, but that was tossed when Republicans realized that it would increase union involvement in judicial campaigns and would subject the judiciary to charges of being political.  Batchelder is a former appeals court judge, so that was scrapped.

They then considered perhaps using retired judges to decide such matters.   And this may be one that still makes it into the bill, except some have suggested that such a change is still essentially binding arbitration.  The latest idea is letting the voters decide which proposal, the unions or the governments, should be adopted if there’s an impasse.  But that has already been criticized as equally unworkable by the Akron Beacon Journal.  Having charged ahead quickly on SB 5 without first resolving the issue of what to replace binding arbitration with has left the entire GOP legislative caucus painting into a corner while holding a very politically damaging bill.

Painted into a corner

The conservative ideologues in the House were furious to see the Senate backpeddle on SB 5 at all.  They would like to see the bill go even further than Jones originally called for. 

Then there’s been rumors about how the GOP wants to frustrate labor’s ability to subject SB 5 to a referendum… like splitting the bill into five bills and forcing a referendum piecemeal fashion, or adding an appropriation on it so they could have a legal argument to the GOP-controlled Ohio Supreme Court that the bill isn’t subject to referendum under Ohio’s Constitution.  Americans for Prosperity wants changes that make union membership voluntary and prohibits the collection of dues that fund unions’ political activities.

But the political desire to avoid a 2012 referendum vote is forcing the Republicans to consult with the Senate’s bare majority.  Giving folks like Frank LaRose practical veto power over every one of these proposals, or force the bill into a conference committee and a certain 2012 referendum instead.  It’s not just LaRose, the House is trying to find a way that if the lose LaRose or anyone else they can pick up perhaps Grendell or Seitz.  This has lead to some difficult political calculus that resulted in today’s story in the Columbus Dispatch:

A bill that would weaken collective bargaining for public workers is not coming in for a smooth landing.

Talks among House Republicans, and discussions between the House and Senate, have not yet produced a final version of Senate Bill 5 that has enough support to pass both chambers. The Senate passed the bill earlier this month by a 17-16 vote.

The House held 36 hours of testimony on the bill. House Speaker William G. Batchelder, R-Medina, has said lawmakers are looking at a number of modifications, but two of the biggest include whether law enforcement and firefighters should be treated differently in the bill, and whether there is a better way to resolve stalled contract negotiations.

The House and Senate have not reached agreement on how to change the bill, and House Republicans reportedly are not in agreement on a path forward.

The Republicans have fifteen days to work out a bill that can pass both chambers and be signed into law.   That Senate scorecard we did?  Yeah, it’s even more relevant now than ever.  Because unless the GOP can pick up one of the No votes, they can only go as far as they can without risking losing Gillmor or LaRose.

Batchelder wants to be relieved of the pressure of getting this done in the next two weeks because he believes it’s keeping the bill for going further than it might be able to if it were forced to go to an actual conference as opposed to the GOP-only House/Senate de facto conference they’re essentially conducted.  But that’s yet another way Kasich has forced Batchelder’s hand.  You see, Kasich’s budget relies on giving the cities SB 5 to manage the massive cuts in his budget to their funding because, again, SB 5 was supposed to be law already by now if the GOP had executed their playbook as intended.  Kasich can’t afford the prospect of losing the referendum, but he sure as heck cannot afford having SB 5 stayed pending a referendum until November 2012.  Such a circumstance would blow a political, if not a fiscal one, in the credibility of Kasich’s budget.

So we know that the GOP has essentially all next week to finally work out a bill, but then again, they’ve not made much progress in the past three.  Clock panic is starting to set in among Republicans who are stunned at just how badly the entire SB 5 process has gone.   I bet we’ll see a new, new SB 5 about this time next week with a quick floor vote on April 5th and/or 6th in both Houses.  They, of course, need to get the bill out of committee first, too.

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