Watered-down bill for firefighters okayed by committee

But collective bargaining billcould still go up in smoke
The Colorado Statesman

Democrats have pulled back on a measure that sought to ensure statewide collective bargaining rights for Colorado firefighters after Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, threatened to veto the legislation. But the revised bill could still splinter the Democratic Party and result in a veto.

Senate Bill 25, sponsored by Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, and Rep. Angela Williams, D-Denver, would have guaranteed collective bargaining rights even in jurisdictions where local voters have opposed the idea. In a letter to legislative leaders on Feb. 19, Hickenlooper joined with Republicans and expressed concerns over influencing local control.

“We do not believe it is a matter of state interest to require mandatory bargaining between a locality and its firefighters,” the governor wrote.

In an attempt to ease the governor’s concerns, Democrats presented a strike-below that watered-down the measure so that it would only allow firefighters to negotiate on safety issues, but not compensatory matters, such as salary.

The legislation would also create a new process for voters to face collective bargaining ballot questions. Cities and counties would be required to place the question on the ballot if 75 percent of any employee group backs becoming a union with the power to collectively bargain.

The House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on Monday backed the measure on a 7-4 party-line vote. In presenting the bill, Williams said her goal was to strike a balance. She said the rewrit-ten bill was crafted with help from the Colorado Pro-fessional Firefighters union and the governor’s staff.

Williams added that the measure is different than a similar measure sponsored by Tochtrop in 2009, which then-Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, vetoed.

“The main difference is that the bill that was previously brought during the Ritter administration, it mandated collective bargaining, and this bill does not mandate collective bargaining,” explained Williams.

“Currently, we do have organizations that have the right to collectively bargain, but what this bill will do different is it will create a process in which we want to have firefighters be able to sit down and have a constructive conversation about those issues that may be non-compensatory,” she added.

Capt. Kevin Duncan, with the Denver Fire Department, said the measure is truly about safety. He said he has gone to two separate fires over his 31 years where fellow firefighters did not return. Denver allows collective bargaining for firefighters, as does Aurora and Boulder.

“Our job is a very, very dangerous job…” testified Duncan. “Over the years, on the things that we have been able to work with the city and change, safety is a very big thing for us.”

Mike Smaldeno, with the Colorado Springs Professional Firefighters, said collective bargaining does not lead to financial constraints for local municipalities, as some fear it would.

“Why would I bankrupt the city I’m sworn to protect?” he asked the committee.

Fire chiefs and municipalities still concerned

But not all firefighters are in agreement. Westminster Fire Chief Doug Hall, representing the Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association, was appalled to learn that the legislation was still moving, despite fire chiefs not being brought to the table on the revised measure. He said he only got his first chance to look at the strike-below just minutes before the hearing began.

“As key stakeholders in this discussion, the Colorado State Fire Chiefs and the individual fire chiefs that make up that association have not had the opportunity to review the current bill as proposed,” he said. “Fundamentally, there are many issues that we have with that. And when the discussions occur about having a seat at the table, that’s a big table, and we would appreciate the courtesy and respect that would allow us to participate in any process that would affect our representative communities.”

Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, agreed with Hall, asking him why his organization was not brought to the table. Hall responded: “I don’t know why I wasn’t invited, it is my understanding… that no individual fire chiefs were invited to collaborate on this particular version.”

Scott was taken aback, exclaiming, “This affects every single community in the state of Colorado!”

Williams believes the Colorado Supreme Court has already addressed some of the concerns expressed by opponents: “The Colorado Supreme Court has decided that a city’s home-rule authority does not preempt the state from collective bargaining processes with employees,” she said.

The Colorado Municipal League also did not have a seat at the table, explained lobbyist Kevin Bommer.

“When does a bill about collaboration not include collaboration with those that it affects?” he asked lawmakers.

Above all, municipalities take issue with the state mandating policies that could fly in the face of local voters. For example, Colorado Springs voters have prohibited collective bargaining.

“The Colorado Municipal League sees no reason to doubt the will of voters now, or in the future,” continued Bommer. “We see no reason why proponents are so willing to go around them.”

He added that there is already a process for taking collective bargaining questions to voters: “I’m stunned…” he said. “The process works. We’ve got a number of cities and protective fire districts with collective bargaining. Nothing is broken…”

Williams acknowledged that the governor might still agree with opponents. She said she had not received any guarantee on whether he would sign or veto the revised bill. Other House Democrats could also be weary of supporting the controversial union-friendly legislation when it makes it to the House floor.

Still, Williams suggested, “Give Colorado firefighters a voice.”

Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, is hopeful that his colleagues will agree: “This is completely about safety...” he said.

“It enhances and improves communication amongst our firefighters…” Melton continued. “Our current system is disingenuous.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com