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Bill makes safety an issue in police, fire collective bargaining

SALEM — A bill that would restore the right of police, firefighters and corrections officers to bargain safety issues during labor negotiations squeaked through the Senate Wednesday.

The vote was 16-13, with Democrats Betsy Johnson of Scappoose, Joanne Verger of Coos Bay and Avel Gordley, an independent from Portland, voting with Republicans against the measure.

Senate Bill 400 would allow public safety employees who are prohibited from striking to raise issues such as staffing levels, overtime, equipment or other questions that could have an impact on safety for employees.

The bill is strongly opposed by the League of Oregon Cities, which spent a day in Salem lobbying against it. Counties also have concerns, most notably those cash-strapped rural counties that lost federal timber subsidies.

Local governments maintain that elected city and county officials should decide which safety concerns should be addressed. Under the bill, the unions would submit their demands to an arbitrator who would decide which could be put on the table.

In 1995, the Republican-controlled Legislature stripped the right of unions to make safety a mandatory issue in collective bargaining.

Sen. Bill Morrisette, D-Springfield, mayor of the city for 10 years, reflected some of the torn feelings a few Democrats had over safety for employees and higher costs for local governments.

In the end, he said, his bottom line is safety.

"My concern is for future safety issues that may come before them," he said.

Added Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, "When it comes to public safety, I stand with the men and women on the line."

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, the bill's floor manager, said an arbitrator could not pick and choose issues, but would have to weigh carefully the union demands.

"All this bill does is allow public safety officials to go to the bargaining table and have a discussion about safety issues that affect them," he said, adding it in no way ties the hands of elected officials.

The close vote could spell trouble for the measure in the House, where Democrats have a slim two-seat margin. Several rural members may be reluctant to vote an issue that could result in significant additional costs for local government.

Don Jepsen is a freelance writer living in Salem. Reach him at jepsen34@open.org.