COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - A former Democratic congressman and a Republican state senator went before residents Tuesday night in the first statewide televised debate on a law that limits the collective bargaining abilities of hundreds of thousands of public employees, trying to appeal to voters who'll decide its fate in two weeks.
Former U.S. Rep. Dennis Eckart represented We Are Ohio, a union-back coalition working to kill the union bill. The former Cleveland-area congressman invoked his hometown, calling GOP Gov. John Kasich's move to restrict collective bargaining rights after campaigning on reducing the power of teachers unions "a pivot that would have been worthy of a LeBron James move."
Republican state Sen. Keith Faber said the goal of the law isn't to attack unions but rather to help struggling local governments better deal with their budgets during periods of declining revenue.
Faber, the son of a unionized highway patrolman and a nurse, said Republicans are trying to protect the values instilled by his parents.
"This is not an attack on government workers ... this is simply about a math problem," he said.
Among other changes, the law limits the collective bargaining abilities of more than 350,000 teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public employees. Workers could negotiate on wages but not on their pensions or health care benefits.
The law also bans public worker strikes, scraps binding arbitration and eliminates teacher step increases.
Voters will decide its fate on the November ballot.
The debaters framed it as a battle between taxpayers and public workers.
Faber said a yes vote on state Issue 2 -- to protect the union law -- would put taxpayers on a level playing field with public employees. He argued that public workers get automatic raises and guaranteed-for-life pensions while the median household income in Ohio was growing slower than public employee salaries.
"It's important to put taxpayers at the table," Faber told reporters after the debate.
Eckart disagreed, saying it was taking away workers' place at the table.
"It's a company tug-of-war on the Fourth of July, and all the rope is on management's side," he said. "It is not collective bargaining. It becomes collective begging."
Much of the debate focused on the collective bargaining law's effects on Ohio teachers. While many ads of both sides of the ballot issue focus on public safety workers, educators make up more than half the state's public work force.
The law makes a number of changes for teachers, including instating merit pay. Many of those changes would still stay in place if the bill is defeated, as they were passed in the budget that took effect in July.
Earlier on Tuesday, a Quinnipiac University poll found that 57 percent of registered Ohio voters want to repeal the law, while 32 percent want to keep it. The poll has a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points.
In a news release immediately after the debate, Building a Better Ohio, the group trying to protect the law, claimed victory in the debate. We Are Ohio spokeswoman Melissa Fazekas said once the law is repealed, residents will be the real winners.
Kasich said he and supporters will continue working to persuade voters to uphold the law.
"We think this is the right thing to create an environment for cities to be able to be successful," he said. "We're giving them the tools."
The poll surveyed 1,668 registered voters by phone last week. The percentage of respondents opposing the law has almost doubled since a Sept. 27 Quinnipiac poll.
Associated Press writer Julie Carr Smyth contributed to this report.