Senate Bill 5 -- which changes government collective bargaining laws -- is becoming a controversy between state and local government employees and frustrated voters.
I learned two big things back in the 70's that continue today:
Good people, committed to work together, can usually find ways to do what is needed despite ineffective organizational and operational rules. This explains examples from across Ohio of teachers, maintenance, law enforcement, prison and other workers taking pay freezes and other compensation concessions to help get though difficult times.
Ineffective organizational and operational rules are easily used to drive up costs and mess up governmental services when either elected leaders or their employees choose to use them as tools for selfish purposes.
It is deeply disappointing that some union employees were told that Senate Bill 5 destroys their retirement plan, their health care insurance and dramatically lowers what they will be paid. Such untruth should have no credibility, but it helps explain the fear, frustration and anger being fostered around this issue.
Sadly, this fuels the polarization and political class conflict that does nothing but weaken our communities and our state.
Should this controversy be resolved by simply stopping further action on changing such things as the rules on how compensation is set for state and local workers?
I don't believe this would be wise, because we need to change Ohio's laws in order to improve how elected officials and their employees work together.
What course is best?
We need to rally all Ohioans around the continuing goal of delivering high quality, cost effective governmental services, while recognizing our limited resources.
Re-balancing Ohio's employee relations laws is only one part of achieving that objective.
Some would argue -- and I am inclined to agree -- that Senate Bill 5 needs improvement.
Over the years, both political poles have attracted many of our citizens into unhealthy attitudes toward employers on one hand and workers on the other. This is part of the reason not everyone is on board with the concept of harmonious workplaces.
It is popular to dislike government in Ohio. As it becomes necessary to re-examine our costs of providing government services, it is too easy to use anti-government sentiment to gain political support. This weakens our ability to provide effective basic services, makes Ohio less competitive, and ends up hurting our quality of life.
At the other pole, it is politically popular to play to the majority of citizens who see themselves as "middle class." They are the many whose work is "hands on," or was before they retired. If the troubles of our state could just be shifted off of their backs and onto the backs of the powerful, the rich, the employers, then our state would be better off, it is suggested. Never mind that the "rich" are already paying for the majority of government services in Ohio. This politics of envy also weakens us.
There is another question: "Why try to balance state and local government budgets by making big changes to government employee relations laws?"
This is a fair question. But it assumes that SB 5 is focusing on the immediate problem of balancing budgets.
Make no mistake, whatever form this bill eventually takes, it will mostly contribute to softening the blows of shorter range budget realignments by providing a more flexible and balanced labor environment.
In other words, SB 5 is in a broad category of activities that have been ignored for years, but that will pay forward in the longer term, provided that they are implemented with the hard work and patient persistence they require.
If leaders balance budgets by reductions only, risks grow that government services will be damaged more than they need to be and that more Ohioans will be hurt as a result -- more layoffs, for example.
We are witnessing such a result following the unfortunate slashing of behavioral health budgets that started in 2008.
Thankfully, this simplistic approach is not the one being recommended to our state legislators.
Think of it as two, overlapping categories of budget balancing strategies -- long range and short range.
This spectrum of longer range policies and projects will be a big part of budget deliberations in the weeks ahead. A sampling of examples could be:
helping persons on Medicaid avoid becoming diabetic, or better deal with the diabetes they already have;
serving more persons at home, rather than in costly institutions;
expanding sharing of services between multiple agencies or between local government units, such as getting your car title and plates at the same counter, computer services being delivered from a shared site, and management officials serving more than one community.
providing intensive, better-coordinated community-based sanctions to non-violent criminals with an eye to keeping them out of costly prisons and instead getting them into productive, taxpaying, family-supporting status;
bringing physical and behavioral health Medicaid services into better coordination
Some of these changes will be in the budget itself.
Some will be enacted in other bills, like SB 5.
Let's be realistic. On average 85 percent of state or local government budgets goes for compensating individuals to provide services to citizens at taxpayers expense.
This makes it certain that proper compensation and work environment is crucial to providing good service. It also means that those costs and working arrangements must be manageable and in line with market rates and at prices affordable prices to taxpayers.
The second category of short-term budget actions more directly seek to balance the bottom line, as our state constitution wisely requires. There must be short-term reductions to put government on a sustainable financial path.
All short range reductions will be difficult, but less so as elected leaders, their employees, and taxpayers reap the benefits of improved operations brought about by projects that pay forward.