Monday, March 14, 2011


by Steve Fair

Binding arbitration is an alternative to judges or courts. It settles disputes between two parties- often consumers and businesses- by working out a deal through an independent, third party body. Binding arbitration frequently saves time, money, and energy when two parties disagree over wages, a contract, the performance of a service, or the exchange of goods.

In 1994, the Oklahoma legislature amended the 1971 FPAA Act by including modified binding arbitration as one of those rights for police and fire fighters. I say modified because Oklahoma's ‘binding arbitration’ for police and firefighters is only binding if an award in favor of the municipality or city is final. An award in favor of an employee group may be appealed by the city to a vote of the people.

Last week the Oklahoma State Senate passed Senate Bill #826 to reform the states binding arbitration law for public employees. The bill barely passed off the Senate floor squeaking by on a vote of 25-16. Five of the Nay votes were Republicans- Senators Barrington, Russell, Reynolds, Shortey and Schulz. The bill’s author, Senator David Holt, (R-OKC), says the reforms are necessary to create a more fair and equitable system for taxpayers who bear the results of binding arbitration.

“Under the system that was narrowly approved by the Legislature in 1994, when municipalities and their unions can’t agree on an employment contract, the dispute goes to an arbitration board,” said Holt, R-Oklahoma City. “The deciding arbitrator is usually an out-of-state attorney recommended by the federal government. As a result, someone who has no stake at all in our communities makes a decision that greatly impacts Oklahomans and our wallets. This bill creates a better environment to arrive at a decision that respects the taxpayers.”

Holt wanted to remove binding arbitration for public employees altogether, however that’s not what SB #826 does. Holt said that among the reforms in SB #826 is a provision authorizing the State Supreme Court to train Oklahoma arbitrators. The bill also contains language to ensure salary comparisons used for deciding contract disputes between municipal employees and the city are an apples-to- apples comparison. The bill also protects tax dollars that the citizenry would reasonably expect to be outside an arbitrator’s discretion- money like a cities’ rainy day fund.

As expected, many of the unions oppose the bill. According to State Senator Roger Ballenger, (D-Okmulgee) he’s heard from several law enforcement and fire officials who have problems with the compromise. “To say that this is leveling the playing field is just another way of saying that this gives the cities an advantage over those hard working men and women who risk their lives every day,” Ballenger said.

The Oklahoma State Fraternal Order of Police supports the bill according to Bobby Stem, their lobbyist. Chalk Norton, a lobbyist for Professional Firefighters of Oklahoma, said while he has worked with Holt on the bill, his group has maintained it would prefer no changes to the current laws on the books on binding arbitration.

Police officers and firefighters have always been American heroes. We cheer them in parades, want to be them when we grow up, thank them for their service when we are grown up, and recognize that without them, our communities are at a vast disadvantage. The work these heroes do is selfless, exceptional and essential.

And so it makes sense that a community is willing to go to bat for its police officers and firefighters, no matter the cost. I have heard people say you can’t put a price on peace of mind, yet when it comes to peace of mind provided by police and fire, there is a price. And at a time when our local budgets across our state are facing shortfalls and many are well into the red, it’s time to consider seriously what to do about the price of things, public safety among them.

The increase in pay or benefits that a municipality does have to provide following an arbitrator’s decision must come from somewhere and that somewhere is the taxpayers. Binding arbitration gives the arbitrator the power to restructure an entire city’s priorities or agenda. Even with the appeal process in Oklahoma, the unions are very effective at getting out their vote in the low turnout elections.

By sending disputing parties to arbitration, a city avoids a public safety strike and police and fire are guaranteed that an employer won’t stonewall wage or benefits requests. But since Oklahoma began binding arbitration, the cost of the process has increased astronomically, the need for it has decreased, and the price of peace of mind has become burdensome for taxpayers. Holt and Martin are on the right track. It’s time to ‘unbind’ the taxpayer.

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