Votes loom on Ohio union law, health care overhaul

JULIE CARR SMYTH Associated Press Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- A nationally watched fight over the bargaining abilities of 350,000 unionized public workers tops the ballot questions facing Ohio voters in an unusually vigorous off-year election Tuesday.

Voters also will decide whether to let the state opt out of a federal health insurance mandate, a decision that would have little legal impact, and whether judges can sit on the bench through age 75. Two big Ohio cities, Akron and Columbus, are also electing mayors.

The effort to turn back Ohio's collective bargaining law, Senate Bill 5, has garnered the most attention among the issues. It has pitted unions representing police, firefighters, teachers, prison guards and other government employees against Republicans at the Statehouse seeking to limit labor's reach and reduce the cost of government.

The bill allows bargaining on wages, conditions and some equipment. It outlaws public worker strikes, scraps binding arbitration and prevents promotions based solely on seniority.

Tricia Schneider, 46, was among a few dozen people who voted at one polling location in the Cincinnati suburb of Anderson Township early Tuesday. Schneider, a registered Republican who works in purchasing, said she's not a union member and planned to vote to uphold the law until she was influenced by her neighbor, a firefighter.

"He was so for the collective bargaining that I changed my mind," she said, adding that public employees perform valuable services and should be able to negotiate on safety issues.

At a quiet polling place in Bexley, a Columbus suburb, 32-year-old logistics analyst Adam Cluff said he has concerns about collective bargaining and voted to keep the restrictions.

"As a nonunion worker, if my job gets cut I don't have protection against getting fired," Cluff said. "Teachers -- if they're upset over layoffs, they'll strike, they won't come in to work. It's more important to teach our kids than for teachers to worry about their own needs."

GOP Gov. John Kasich, who took office in January, has traversed the state in defense of the law he signed in March, vowing to continue creatively tackling the size of the state budget and impact on taxpayers even if the bill is defeated.

We Are Ohio, the union-backed coalition opposing the law, had significant leads in both fundraising and polls heading into Election Day, building off anger over the bill that prompted days of Statehouse protests as it moved through the legislature earlier this year.

It appears as Issue 2 on the ballot, with a yes vote upholding the law and a no vote rejecting it.

Tuesday's Issue 1 asks voters whether to raise the age limit for judges from 70 to 75, potentially affecting 10 percent of sitting judges over the next six years.

The third issue asks voters to amend Ohio's constitution to let the state opt out of a provision of the 2009 federal health care overhaul, which mandates that most Americans purchase health care. The measure will have limited legal impact, as federal laws generally trump state laws, but backers hope it can send a message to Washington on opposition to the mandates.

Opponents of the amendment say its broad wording could have unintended consequences on state health care laws.

The collective bargaining fight is expected to bring out potentially record crowds to the polls for an off-year election. Locations in some parts of Ohio had light turnout early Tuesday while others had lines of voters.

Several voter terminals at an elementary school in the Columbus suburb of Grove City were briefly evacuated along with students when a gas odor was detected, but voting resumed after firefighters checked the area. No other problems were reported.

Voters in Columbus, Ohio's largest city, were deciding whether to retain Democratic Mayor Michael Coleman for a fourth term or elect Republican Earl Smith, a political newcomer and former police sergeant who works as a security consultant.

Akron's longest-serving mayor, Democrat Don Plusquellic, faced Republican attorney Jennifer Hensal. Plusquellic survived a recall vote two years ago. Hensal has worked as a municipal lawyer or prosecutor in several cities.

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AP writers Andy Brownfield in Columbus and Lisa Cornwell in Cincinnati contributed to this report.

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