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Anti-union bills meet mixed fate in House committee

Arizona Capitol Times illustration (Gabe Turner)

A trio of union-busting bills considered by a House committee on Tuesday met a varied fate: One passed, one was tabled to stave off a likely failure, and another was killed but later resurrected and approved when two Republican lawmakers changed their minds.

Republican Reps. Doug Coleman of Apache Junction and Sonny Borrelli of Lake Havasu City changed their votes in the final moments of the more than four-hour House Government Committee meeting.

The switch came in the second round of voting on House Bill 2330, when Democratic Rep. Martin Quezada of Phoenix made a motion for an immediate reconsideration of the bill, which Democrats had joined forces with the two Republicans to defeat earlier.

The bill would require labor negotiations between a public employee union and a public body to be subject to the open meetings and open records laws. Public safety union leaders showed up in large numbers to oppose the bill, saying negotiations are done behind closed doors for a reason, and the product of those negotiations are adopted in full compliance of the open meetings and open records laws.

Though the bipartisan coalition voted the bill down, it had been kept on a kind of life support by the committee chair, Republican Rep. Michelle Ugenti of Scottsdale. Ugenti supports the measure, but voted against it to invoke reconsideration, a procedural move that allows her to bring the measure back for a vote later.

But when Quezada moved at the end of the meeting to reconsider the bill immediately, thinking he could kill it once and for all, Ugenti called the committee into recess and the Republicans huddled behind closed doors.

When Ugenti gaveled the committee back in and took a second vote, Borrelli and Coleman changed their minds, and the measure passed on a party line vote.

Borrelli had strongly opposed the measure on the first vote, saying he didn’t think the process lacked transparency and he didn’t want to pass on mandates to cities and counties about how they must negotiate their labor contracts.

“If (citizens) don’t like the way city councils are doing things, they need to take it up with that city council,” he said. “I think us micromanaging and painting (rules) with a big wide brush for every city and county in Arizona is, I’m sorry, against my (small) government principals,” he said.

After the meeting, Borrelli said he switched his vote because he didn’t like the political maneuvering Quezada used to force a new vote, and said he plans to oppose the bill when it reaches the floor.

“I don’t think it’s going to pass anyway. I don’t think it will have the support of the House,” he said.

Coleman opposed the bill on the initial vote because, as a former Apache Junction mayor and councilmember, he said he realized the importance of one-on-one communication between the elected officials and the labor unions to get anything done. He said those negotiations didn’t impair transparency because in the end, the council had to take an open vote on any proposal.

He was also concerned that it would be an unfunded mandate on small local governments, which would have to buy new equipment to record the open meetings.

After the second vote, Coleman said he still had issues with the bill, but he changed his mind because the sponsor, Republican Rep. Steve Montenegro of Avondale, convinced him that his concerns would be addressed in later amendments.

Rep. David Gowan of Sierra Vista, the majority leader, was present in the Republican huddle before the second vote, and said that there was no cajoling the Republican members to switch their votes.

“There was no carrot, no stick,” he said.

From the first of the three union bills the committee heard, there were signs Borrelli and Coleman weren’t as staunch in their opposition to public employee unions as the other four Republicans on the nine-member panel.

The first bill the committee considered, House Bill 2026, would require municipal councils, county boards and fire district boards to hold a vote by the end of this year on whether to authorize automatic paycheck deductions for public employee union dues. If those political entities failed to vote, they would be prohibited from withholding a portion of their workers’ salary for union dues. If they voted to ban the practice, councils could revisit their decision at any time.

Ugenti, the bill’s sponsor, said her aim was to force a political conversation at the local level about the practice. She said that under her bill, local governments can continue the deductions – they just have to take a vote on it first.

“I keep hearing that this is anti-local control, and I just don’t see it. This is pro-local control,” she said. “Own your decisions, own your budget process, own what you believe in, own your convictions and vote accordingly. If you don’t have the political will to do that, what does that say about what you’re doing?”

But union representatives who packed the room said that local governments can vote on the issue anytime they want, and forcing them to vote on the matter isn’t the proper role of the state. They pointed out that organizations like United Way take out automatic paycheck deductions, and asked why the Legislature wasn’t trying to stop that.

Mike Gardner executive director of the Professional Firefighters Association of Arizona and a former Arizona lawmaker, argued against the bill, saying that the government has no role telling people what they can spend their hard-earned money on, even if it’s union dues.

“As a former member of this body, as a Republican, and I consider myself a Ronald Reagan Republican, I view this as a real affront to the proper role of government,” he said.

Borrelli, a former city council member, said they didn’t like the state mandating that cities vote on the issue, and he was especially concerned that the bill targeted police and firemen. He voted for the bill, but said he reserved the right to vote no on the floor.

Coleman also had reservations when he voted to approve the measure, saying he is suspicious of any bill that begins with the words “requires local governments to…” Coleman said he worried that city councils that were staunchly opposed to paycheck deductions would not vote on the issue, and therefore handcuff future city councils that might be more amenable to the practice.

He voted to approve the measure out of respect for Ugenti, he said.

The final measure the House Government Committee heard was House Bill 2343, which would prohibit compensating government workers while they performed union activities, known as union release time.

The sponsor, Rep. Warren Petersen of Gilbert, said the bill was necessary because unionized government employees are taking advantage of the release time to do union work on the taxpayer’s dime.

“We literally have people who are not working, we have police officers that are not patrolling, they’re not going out, they’re just doing union activity,” he said.

But Jim Mann, executive director of the Arizona Fraternal Order of Police, said that lawmakers are mistaken about what union members are doing on their release time. He said that union representatives assist officers through critical processes like use of force investigations.

In the end, that bill didn’t receive a vote. After Borrelli and Coleman appeared likely to vote against the measure, Petersen decided to table the bill and bring it back for a vote another day.

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