COLUMBUS, Ohio — A bill that would limit collective bargaining rights for 350,000 Ohio public workers neared passage before the Republican-controlled House on Wednesday, one of its final hurdles before the measure goes to the governor of this labor-stronghold state.
The legislation is in some ways tougher than Wisconsin's, as it would extend union restrictions to police officers and firefighters. But its reception in Ohio has paled in intensity with the raucous fight in Wisconsin, where tens of thousands demonstrated against the bill.
On Wednesday, an estimated 700 people came to the Ohio Statehouse to hear the debate. Chants from demonstrators inside the statehouse could be heard in the chamber.
Among those who lined up to get into the House chamber was Dayton firefighter Jeff Jones, who said he came because he wanted to protect his pension and show his opposition for the bill.
"It would open the door for any government agency to basically do what they want to," said Jones, 43.
Contentious debates over restricting collective bargaining have popped up in statehouses across the country, most notably in Wisconsin, where the governor signed into law this month a bill eliminating most of state workers' collective bargaining rights.
Wisconsin's measure exempts police officers and firefighters.
The Ohio bill would apply to workers such as police officers, firefighters, teachers and state employees. They could negotiate wages and certain work conditions but not health care, sick time or pension benefits. The bill would do away with automatic pay raises and would base future wage increases on merit. Workers would also be banned from striking.
Debate in Ohio began with boos, shouts and laughter from protesters in the House chamber who oppose the legislation, prompting the House speaker to slam his gavel to bring order.
Onlookers in the gallery balked as state Rep. Joseph Uecker said the bill would help city officials save taxpayers money and help the middle class.
"You gotta be kidding!" one man shouted.
"We're going to clear the balcony if it's necessary," responded House Speaker William Batchelder, a Medina Republican.
GOP members were coming to the defense of the measure even before floor debate started.
"This state cannot pay what we've been paying in the past," Batchelder said. "Local government and taxpayers need control over their budgets. This bill, as amended and changed, is a bill that will give control back to the people who pay the bills."
The House vote comes a day after a legislative committee approved changes to make the bill even tougher for unions. The GOP-backed revisions greased the measure for what was expected to be smooth passage in the House.
The Senate, also controlled by Republicans, narrowly passed the bill on a 17-16 vote this month. It would have to agree to the revisions before Gov. John Kasich could sign it into law. The Senate was likely to vote on the changes later Wednesday.
Kasich, a first-term Republican, supports the proposal.
"We think we have a program here that's going to allow local governments to deal with fewer dollars, it still protects the right of collective bargaining on things that we think are legitimate, and will help people be able to cope in a period of time when we do have fewer resources," Kasich told reporters Wednesday at a separate bill signing.
Kasich's $55.5 billion, two-year spending plan for the state counts on savings from relaxed union rights at the state and local levels. Local governments and school districts face deep cuts in the wake of the state's $8 billion budget gap.
"Unions didn't cause the problems of this budget," state Rep. Kenny Yuko, a Democrat from Richmond Heights, told his House colleagues during debate.
Democrats have offered no amendments. Instead, they delivered boxes containing more than 65,000 opponent signatures to the House labor committee's chairman.
Opponents have vowed to lead a ballot repeal effort if the Ohio measure passes.
The GOP-backed revisions in the House make it more difficult for unions to collect certain fees. The committee also altered the bill to ban automatic deductions from employee paychecks that would go the unions' political arm. Other changes would prevent nonunion employees affected by contracts from paying fees to union organizations.
Unions argue that their contracts cover those nonunion workers and that letting them not pay unfairly spreads the costs to dues-paying members.
"Not only are they attacking middle-class wages, rights and benefits, but now the bill will punish people for even joining a union," said Eddie L. Parks, president of the 34,000-member Ohio Civil Service Employees Association. "Those who join will be picking up the tab for those who don't."
Lawmakers also revised the bill to include more details on who defines merit and performance pay. For instance, performance pay for teachers would be based upon a statewide framework from the state Department of Education and objectives from the school board.
Jennifer Blair, a 33-year-old music teacher from Westerville, said she believes the bill will "destroy public education as we know it."
"It's setting out to take away services our children have, take away services our teachers have, supplies in our classroom, teachers' rights, class size, safety issues in the classroom for our special needs teachers," she said.
AP Statehouse Correspondent Julie Carr Smyth contributed to this report.