Holt in Lawton Constitution: “Practice Binds City Taxpayers to Utility Hikes”

Senator Holt published an op-ed in Saturday’s Lawton Constitution regarding binding arbitration.  

Practice Binds City Taxpayers to Utility Hikes

by State Sen. David Holt

March 12, 2011

In our representative democracy, it would be hard to imagine that major decisions about your local tax dollars would ever be made by someone from out-of-state who is unelected and unaccountable to you.   And yet, this happens every year across Oklahoma, and Lawton is no exception.

Since “binding arbitration” was barely passed by the Legislature in 1994, in cases where municipalities and their unions cannot agree on an employment contract, their conflict is handed over to an arbitration board.   The deciding arbitrator is usually an out-of-state attorney recommended by the Federal government.   This person picks one of the sides and their ruling is final, unless the city calls for an election.   The election option has emerged as rare and impractical because of the cost, the inability of a city to conduct a campaign, the unlikelihood that negotiations and an election can all be completed in the fiscal year as required, and the fact that the arbitrator being challenged chooses the ballot.  

Because the election option has been practically unusable, the final decision has almost always stayed in the hands of the arbitrator.   This is why this process is known as “binding arbitration,” and it is also why it must end or be reformed this year.  As then-candidate Frank Keating said in 1994 when binding arbitration became law: “The decision to raise taxes and spend the public’s money must in our system be on the shoulders and in the hands of those who are elected to do it.”

Arbitrators have no knowledge of a city, and they answer to no one in that city.   In 2003 in Lawton, while departments were being cut and the city was in a hiring freeze, your elected representatives believed that you could not afford the raises demanded by your city’s unions.   The arbitrator substituted his judgment for yours, and he ruled that the unions should receive raises, even if it meant laying-off police officers.   That captures the irony of binding arbitration – unions like the process because they enjoy larger raises, but money is finite, and cities end up laying off new officers to pay the new salaries of those who remain.   The loser in that game is you.

This is why I have introduced SB 826, which in its current version would significantly reform binding arbitration.   Rep. Scott Martin has introduced HB 1576 in the House to repeal binding arbitration.   Both bills are moving through the process and merit your support.   SB 826 also enjoys the support of the Oklahoma Academy, the State Chamber, the Oklahoma Municipal League, and Labor Commissioner Mark Costello.   The bills also enjoy the strong support of your local Lawton officials.  I encourage you to make sure your elected representatives at the legislator feel the same way.  It’s time the taxpayers were put back in charge.

State Sen. David Holt is an Oklahoma City Republican.

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