DENVER – Democrats are scrambling to keep Senate Bill 25, which if passed would allow firefighters across the state to join a union, from being vetoed by Gov. John Hickenlooper who indicated Tuesday that is his intention at this point.
Hickenlooper expressed concern that the bill, now in the state House, would usurp the right of local governments to ask voters to approve or disapprove of public employee unions.
Democrat leaders Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springsand House Speaker Mark Ferrandino of Denverand SB 25 sponsors state Sen. Lois Tochtrop (D-Thornton) and state Rep. Angela Williams (D-Denver) received the governor’s letter of concerns Tuesday.
“We do not believe it is a matter of state interest to require mandatory bargaining between a locality and its firefighters,” said Hickenlooper.
“It is a matter of state interest, however, that the political rights of firefighters to engage in meaningful dialogue with their local elected representatives, including petitioning for local elections, be fully protected,” explained the governor.
During his tenure as mayor of Denver, Hickenlooper had worked closely to renegotiate collective bargaining contracts with the city’s fire fighters’ union.
“As a former mayor, I respect the positive good that can result from collective bargaining,” said Hickenlooper. “In Denver, we successfully negotiated collective bargaining agreements with the firefighters union.”
However, he said, “In those negotiations, we operated with the mutual understanding that we must take into consideration the shared interests of making responsible use of taxpayers funds, prioritizing the well-being and safety of the public and ensuring the safety of the firefighters.”
Hickenlooper said he would prefer that SB 25 hit a delicate balance of ensuring protection of firefighters to exercise their political rights, affording an opportunity for firefighters to hold meaningful discussions with their employers on issues of concern such as workplace safety, equipment needs and other employment issues, and respecting local control.
“For most Coloradans, firefighters symbolize courage in the face of extraordinary adversity. We are certainly mindful of their efforts during the last season of wildfires,” said Hickenlooper.
Despite opposition to the bill, he said, it “does not diminish the value of this service, or imply that firefighters do not face staggering risk of injury and loss of life.”
The bill, however, does not offer benefits to volunteer firefighters who often work side by side with paid professional firefighters. Though the bill prohibits strikes, there is no penalty for doing so. The measure also allows governing jurisdictions to ask voters to resolve disputes, but it also opens the door to litigation – an expensive proposition for many districts.
SB 25 passed the Senate on Feb. 5, and now has been assigned to theHouse State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, but no hearing date has been set.
Tochtrop told reporters Tuesday that she is “not happy” with the governor’s letter, but remains hopeful that it can be amended to avoid the governor’s veto pen.
A few legislators speculated that a palpable amendment may be revising the bill’s collective bargaining mandate on fire stations of two or more firefighters upward to 50 or more.
The 50 or more standard was contained in the original firefighters’ union bill sponsored by Tochtrop in 2009. The bill sailed through the Democrat-controlled House and Senate, but was vetoed by then Gov. Bill Ritter.
Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach and Boulder Mayor Matthew Appelbaum jointly testified against the bill last month in a Senate committee last month. Though Boulder has a form of collective bargaining, Appelbaum agreed with Bach that the bill appears to be a mandate on local government.
“Mayor Bach just has a difference in philosophy,” said state Rep. Tony Exum, a retired firefighter fromColorado Springswho talked with Bach. “I don’t think he’s ever been for unions.”
“Governor Hickenlooper is fair and is willing to do what’s best for the people,” said the freshman Democrat legislator who hopes the bill passes and is signed into law.
“I’d be disappointed if he vetoed this bill,” said Exum.
Earlier this month, Tochtrop renamed the bill, “The Randy Atkinson Memorial Bill,” in memory of a the Colorado Professional Fire Fighters Union’s past president and government affairs advocate who died in October.
Mike Rogers, current president of the union, urged legislators to vote for SB 25 and implied Hickenlooper would sign it into law this year.
“When he was mayor of Denver, Governor Hickenlooper granted and respected the collective bargaining rights of his fire fighters,” declared Rogers, whose union represents 3,800 professional firefighters.
But as Rogers noted, only 14 of the union’s 40 locals have achieved collective bargaining rights.
“Changing our current system of local voter approval of collective bargaining to overriding the will of local voters who have rejected collective bargaining is not appropriate,” said Cadman, who then revealed those were the words of Ritter explaining why he vetoed the bill.
The bill passed the state Senate on a party line vote, but Democrat state Sen. Gail Schwartz (D-Snowmass Village) joined Republicans in voting against it. Schwartz said that imposing unions on small, under-funded rural fire departments would cause more harm than good.
The Colorado Municipal League has also opposed SB 25 because it imposes “a significant unfunded mandate on local governments and (poses) a major preemption into local control and home rule authority.”
“The bill is an intrusion of the state into the employment practices and policies of local governments and disenfranchises local voters,” stated CML Deputy Director Kevin Bommer.
The Colorado Professional Fire Fighters Union’s small donor committee is one the largest contribution clearing houses that funds Democrat legislators’ campaigns.