It isn’t easy to defeat a Senate bill that has 14 co-sponsors. It takes a majority of the 30 elected members to win on final reading, so from the beginning a measure to take away binding arbitration for firefighters only needed to pick up two more votes to pass.
But Senate File 123 didn’t get a single extra vote of support Thursday, failing on a 14-13 vote as dozens of firefighters from around the state quietly viewed the proceedings from the third-floor gallery. Three senators were excused from the morning session when the vote took place.
“We’re just happy that this was defeated, and we’ll keep serving the public, like we do 365 days a year, seven days a week, every minute of every day,” said a relieved Joe Fender, president of the Federated Fire Fighters of Wyoming.
SF 123 was sponsored by Sen. Dave Kinskey, a Republican from Sheridan. That northern city has gone to binding arbitration six times in the past 20 years, which is as many times combined for the five other cities in the state that have professional firefighting departments — Cheyenne, Laramie, Rock Springs, Casper and Mills.
“I think the point made during the debate — that this is a local problem in Sheridan, and not a statewide problem — was incredibly important,” Fender said. “Sen. Kinskey kept talking about how negotiations used to be done over a cup of coffee. From what I understand, the city of Sheridan wants to get back to that cup of coffee.”
Kinskey argued his bill was necessary because firefighters now have the upper hand in negotiations with city officials. In 1965, the Legislature approved a bill that stated if the union and city can’t agree on a contract within a specified time period, the issue is decided by an arbitrator whose decision is binding to both parties.
Under SF 123, the ruling by an arbitrator would only be advisory, and city officials would have the last word about what the firefighters’ contract would contain.
“The system has worked for 50 years, and there’s no reason to change it,” maintained Sen. John Hastert (D-Green River), who added that SF 123 would “leave the city holding all of the cards.”
Kinskey said in the spirit of compromise, he offered an amendment that would leave arbitrators’ rulings binding on issues dealing with safety equipment. His change was adopted, but it wasn’t enough to persuade a majority to vote in favor of his bill.
“Why is there one particular group of employees, cities and towns only, that has collective bargaining rights, and binding arbitration rights, when no other employees in the state of Wyoming do?” Kinskey asked.
The frustrated sponsor, in his final pitch for the measure, said cities delegate outside arbitrators “inappropriately and unconstitutionally” to make fiscal decisions without ever being held accountable by voters.
“I have reviewed every arbitration decision in the state of Wyoming I could get my hands on, and not one was about safety,” Kinskey said. “It’s about money, pensions, benefits, wages.” He spit out “money” disdainfully, like a dirty word.
Sen. Bill Landen, a Casper Republican who originally signed on as a co-sponsor, praised KInskey for his work on the bill, but said, “I don’t think we’re quite there yet” in solving the city government problems Kinskey outlined.
“Ultimately, it’s our job to represent our districts back home,” Landen said. “I’ve heard from city officials from Casper, and they’re just not for this bill.”
Sen. Curt Meier (R-LaGrange), who offered two amendments that didn’t pass, said, “It seems like both side are saying, ‘It’s my way or the highway.'”
Meier said the issue would be a good one for an interim topic, so it could be studied by a legislative committee for the next year. Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie), who voted against the bill a few minutes later, agreed that an interim study might find a solution for some cities’ problems with the current system.
“Let’s do our work in next interim, and come back with something that’s a compromise that is that middle ground [we’re seeking], instead of the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction,” Rothfuss said.
“I personally don’t think it’s necessary for an interim study. It’s something that’s worked for a half-century,” Fender said. “But if the Legislature wants to do that, obviously it’s their prerogative. We’ll be there.”