Published: Wednesday, August 17, 2011, 7:00 PM Updated: Thursday, August 18, 2011, 8:03 AM
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Gov. John Kasich backtracked on Senate Bill 5 on Wednesday, asking union leaders to negotiate a compromise on the collective bargaining law he championed and end efforts to repeal it.
While the Republican leader made clear he wants a voter referendum on SB5 to go away, Kasich did not specifically outline provisions of the multi-faceted law that he is willing to lose.
Kasich held a news conference to publicly ask union leaders opposed to SB5 to meet with him and other Republican leaders at 10 a.m. Friday at his office building. He also put his request in writing, sending a letter to We Are Ohio, the anti-SB5 group.
“We are now standing here saying to people, ‘bring your grievances to us. We will look at them,'” said Kasich, who was joined at the news conference by fellow Republicans, House Speaker William G. Batchelder and Senate President Tom Niehaus. “Why would people say ‘I’m not going to talk?’
“It doesn’t mean that because you talk you reach agreement,” he said. “Just because you talk doesn’t mean you work it all out. But I think the public would like us to talk. So we’ll see where this all goes.”
The governor didn’t have to wait long to get his answer. We Are Ohio spokeswoman Melissa Fazekas was waiting outside Kasich’s Statehouse office for the news conference to end. Her message to reporters was simple: It’s too late for talking.
She noted that a record 1.3 million signatures were collected to get the repeal effort on the Nov. 8 ballot, and she questioned Kasich’s claim that voters are clamoring for a compromise. She called Kasich’s invitation to meet a publicity stunt to save political face over a law that polling suggests will be overturned by a wide margin.
“These politicians who passed Senate Bill 5 have the ability to come back and repeal the law,” she said. “And that is what they should do, repeal the entire law. Or they can join us and vote no in November on Issue 2.”
Fazekas said she could not say whether individual union leaders would accept the governor’s invitation and show up on Friday. But she said the official position of We Are Ohio is that Republicans, who control the legislature, should repeal the bill — and then union leaders would be willing to talk.
“That would be a starting point for us,” she said.
Cleveland police union president Stephen Loomis called Kasich’s offer “hypocritical.”
“We asked for them to sit down to have these discussions while the bill was still going through the legislature and were summarily dismissed by Gov. Kasich and the House and Senate leadership,” Loomis said. “Repeal the bill in its entirety and we’d be happy to sit down with you. There is absolutely no trust. Once bitten, twice shy. Talk is cheap.”
The hard-charging Kasich, who prides himself on never wilting to outside pressures, especially from media, said he yielded this time to editorials in The Columbus Dispatch and The Plain Dealer that called for the two sides to sit down and talk.
But many have wondered why the governor, who signed SB5 on March 31, took so long to publicly call for a compromise.
“I am utterly perplexed as to why the Republicans have waited this long to come to the table,” said state Sen. Nina Turner, a Cleveland Democrat. “After months of playing politics with peoples’ paychecks, their new-found spirit of compromise seems a bit late.”
Kasich says his timing has nothing to do with efforts to repeal the law, or with a recent Quinnipiac poll that shows the measure being defeated by a double-digit margin.
“This is not an effort that is being put forward because we fear we’re going to lose,” Kasich said.
The Quinnipiac poll, released in late July, showed voters favoring a repeal of SB5, 56-to-32-percent — a 24 point margin.
“He must’ve gotten the latest poll results,” said Ohio Democratic Party chairman Chris Redfern. “It’s always good to have converts to the movement.”
The same poll, however, showed voters strongly support key aspects of the law, including requirements that public workers pay at least 15 percent of health insurance premiums and contribute at least 10 percent of their wages toward their pensions.
Kasich says that his staff and other Republican leaders had discussions earlier this summer with union leaders — though he would not say who — and says there was progress being made, and “then all of a sudden those people were yanked away.”
Other media reports have made similar claims with anonymous sourcing. But Fazekas said no such discussions ever occurred between the two sides in any official capacity. And no union leader has come forward to admit participating in any such meetings.
“We have a leadership structure in place with We Are Ohio,” she said. “Our campaign manager was never contacted by anyone from the governor’s office about a negotiation or a compromise.”
Batchelder, the GOP House speaker, is concerned that a volatile campaign this fall may be a setback for Ohio, which he said is showing signs of making economic improvements.
“I’m very concerned about the potential possibilities of an issue like this that’s on the ballot when people are very, very angry on each side,” he said. “I think it is very important because of what we have to do here in the state of Ohio to continue the forward motion that we have had.”
Ohio Republican Party Chairman Kevin DeWine issued a statement late Wednesday urging labor leaders to put aside “political differences” and heed Kasich’s call to compromise.
SB5 was a highly controversial bill that drew the most boisterous and intense rallies to the Statehouse earlier this year that anyone could recall. One rally attracted more than 8,000 people with signs and bullhorns who rallied on the Statehouse lawn. At one point, the Statehouse doors were locked to keep opponents out. Security was more than tripled. The events drew national media attention.
Senate Bill 5 sharply restricts collective bargaining, ends binding arbitration and bans worker strikes for all state and local public employees.
Kasich has said tools in the law will help local governments rein in the costs for salaries and benefits of their workers, paid for by taxpaying private sector workers.
If it chooses to, We Are Ohio has until Aug. 29 to pull its referendum off the ballot. Kasich said if his offer to compromise is rebuffed, he is prepared to fight on toward November.
“Let’s see where all this goes. Maybe we get somewhere, maybe we won’t,” Kasich said. “If we don’t get anywhere, see you in November.”