The two Republican House leaders, Speaker Kris Steele and Speaker Pro Tem Jeff Hickman, were needed to vote for two of the bills to get them passed by the House of Representatives General Government Committee.
Committee Chairman Dennis Johnson, R-Duncan, held the vote open for nearly 10 minutes in what he called “not a traditional practice” so that Steele, R-Shawnee, could make it to the committee room and vote for House Bill 1576, which would eliminate the process known as binding arbitration.
Hickman, R-Fairview, already had voted for the measure, but it was tied 8-8 until Steele cast his vote. Steele and Hickman, because of their leadership positions, are ex officio members of all House committees and can vote on measures. HB 1576 passed 9-8 and now goes to the House floor.
Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, who characterized the measure as the toughest anti-union measures in recent years, peppered Johnson with questions while committee members waited for Steele to arrive.
“I believe that we're making a mockery of the process,” Terrill said as a crowded room of spectators, including 16 firefighters lined up along two walls, waited.
Binding arbitration occurs when a local government and labor union representing police or fire departments can't reach an agreement in a labor contract negotiation.
The local government and union's last best offers to one another are sent to a panel of three arbitrators who decide which offer is best.
The city and union each choose one arbitrator. The third, deciding arbitrator is agreed on by both sides but is a federal mediator usually from out of state.
Rep. Scott Martin, R-Norman, said he didn't consider his measure and another bill as anti-union.
“I would say that they are pro-taxpayer,” said Martin, who worked 11 years as an assistant city manager in Noble and in Norman.
“This would force labor and management back to the table to continue negotiations,” he said.
Chalk Norton, legislative director for the Professional Fire Fighters of Oklahoma, said losing binding arbitration would kill collective bargaining for firefighters and police officers. He said in 1971 the Legislature and the governor decided to resolve impasses by arbitration with the trade-off that strikes were forbidden because of dangers to the public safety.
Under binding arbitration, if the three-member panel of arbitrators selects the city's last best offer, it is considered binding on the union, Norton said. If arbitrators choose the union's last best offer, the city can accept it or submit both last best offers to city voters to decide.
HB 1576 would return the negotiating process to the way it was before binding arbitration. Then, arbitrators were required to come up with a compromise instead of choosing one offer over the other.
Steele and Hickman also were needed to pass Martin's other bill, HB 1577, which adds two members to the Public Employees Relations Board. The three-member panel, now appointed by the governor, would change to having two members appointed by the speaker, two members appointed by the Senate President Pro Tem and one member, who would serve as chairman, named by the governor.
HB 1577 passed 9-8 and now goes to the full House. Two similar measures by Martin passed House committees in 2007 and 2009, but never made it to the full House.
The committee also passed HB 1210, which would change how the third arbitrator in city-union disputes is selected. Rep. Dan Kirby, R-Tulsa, said his bill would allow the chief judge in the judicial district of the city involved in negotiations to select the arbitrator instead of the city and union agreeing on a federal mediator.
Kirby said his proposed process would be less expensive for cities. Norton said federal mediators generally are more knowledgeable in labor dispute issues than judges.
HB 1210 passed 9-7 and now goes to the full House.