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Critics Say Arbitration Bill 'Hollow' Without Amendment

The GOP-controlled state Senate missed an opportunity to potentially save local government millions of dollars that they might have to pay in police and fire salaries and benefits, critics say.

A key amendment to Senate Bill 1072 would have required arbitrators to look closer at city finances before awarding police and fire union raises. It was rejected by the Senate, which later voted to pass what one critic called "a hollow" bill.

The amendment was rejected on a voice vote, which means that there is no official record kept of how each lawmaker voted. Voice votes are permitted on amendments to bills and are frequently used in both chambers of the Legislature, both to save time and to allow lawmakers to avoid going on the record with controversial votes.

SB 1072 would make changes to Public Act 312, which gives arbitrators the power to resolve negotiation impasses between cities and unions.

For example, in February 2009, an arbitrator ruled that the city of Ann Arbor must pay its largest police unions retroactive raises dating back to 2006. Some of the raises were as high as 3 percent. Yet in December, the city learned it was facing an $8 million deficit over the next two years — not including the $1.5 million the retroactive raises would cost the city.

In making the decision, the arbitrator made reference to the city's $10 million fund balance as evidence it had the funds to pay the raises.

Sen. Bruce Patterson, R-Canton Township, brought an amendment to SB 1072 that had specific criteria regarding what an arbitrator would have to reference before saying a city could afford the raises.

If it had become law, the Patterson amendment would have directed arbitrators to look at the financial impact of any awards for five years, consider the financial climate of the region and make sure a city isn't deficit spending.

"I was not happy the amendment was defeated," Patterson wrote in an e-mail.

And why the voice vote, which makes it impossible to track votes?

"I am already 'persona non grata' in the Senate Republican Caucus and chose not to be further ostracized by requesting a record roll call vote," Patterson wrote.

Lawmakers have the option of requesting record roll call votes on their amendments, but are often advised against it. By contrast, the state constitution requires that votes for final passage on any bill must have a record roll call vote before the legislation can be sent to the other chamber or to the governor for a signature.

Many GOP senators didn't respond to requests for an explanation why they wouldn't pass Patterson's amendment.

The offices of Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, and Senate President Pro Tempore Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, didn't respond to requests for comment.

Richardville's office did say the senator voted against Patterson's amendment.

Justin Winslow, chief of staff for Sen. John Pappageorge, R-Troy, said he didn't recall how Pappageorge voted and couldn't look it up because it was a voice vote.

Winslow didn't respond to an e-mail asking that he ask Pappageorge how he voted.

But even a Democratic Mayor — Ann Arbor's John Hieftje — says PA Act 312 needs to change.

"The financial condition of a city is an important factor that needs to be considered by Act 312 arbitrators," Hieftje said in an e-mail. "The legislature needs to take the blinders off the arbitrators so they can start to work in the real world."

Lana Theis, who is the chairman of Brighton Area Fire Authority Board as well as vice chair of the Livingston County Republican Party, said passing SB 1072 without real reform was "irrational."

"If the tea parties have taught us anything, it's that taxpayers want government to look at the financial impact first," Theis wrote in an e-mail. "How can elected officials call themselves fiscally responsible and yet vote down an amendment that requires the consideration of affordability as paramount?  Ignoring cost can only result in a tax increase for Michigan's voters."

Dan Gilmartin, executive director of the Michigan Municipal League, an association for local governments, called SB 1072 "hollow" without Patterson's amendment.

"These are the kinds of things that really matter," Gilmartin said. "These are things the Legislature is going to have to tackle. If they don't, they can form all the committees they want. Let's tackle the stuff that really matters."

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.