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Martin Walsh-backed arbitration bill fizzles

After dominating weeks of the summer mayoral campaign, a controversial measure pushed by Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh that would make rulings by arbitrators binding appeared to die a quiet death Wednesday.

Just a handful of speakers addressed House Bill 2467 during the hour-and-a-half public hearing in a stuffy State House meeting room. Leaders of the Public Safety Committee say it is unlikely the bill will ever make it out of committee and come up for a full vote in the Legislature.

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The measure, which Walsh has promoted for a decade as a state representative, would make arbitrators’ decisions final in contract negotiations between cities and labor unions, eliminating the requirement for a City Council vote.

Walshdid not attend Wednesday’s hearing. His transition team declined to make him available for comment on the bill.

With the measure stalled in committee, Walsh could pressure his former State House colleagues to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. However, an official on Walsh’s transition team said that it is unlikely Walsh will exert political capital to do so.

“He’s not intending to push this issue,” the official said. “He’s really focused on the transition right now.”

The bill was thrust to the forefront of city politics this summer as Walsh, a former union president with deep ties to labor, was repeatedly questioned about whether he could remain independent from organized labor if elected. Union groups spent millions on behalf of his mayoral bid.

‘He’s not intending to push this issue. He’s really focused on the transition right now.’

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Walsh has argued that those close ties to labor will be an asset at the bargaining table.

He has previously asserted that the bill would install more financial safeguards for cities and towns and that binding arbitration would facilitate compromise.

But watchdog groups have called the proposed changes in the House bill a major departure from how union contract disputes are currently settled and warned that the move would strip a city council’s power to reject a fiscally irresponsible ruling by an arbitrator.

The issue played out in dramatic fashion last week, when Boston’s City Council voted unanimously to approve an arbitrator-recommended 25.4 percent pay hike for police officers that Mayor Thomas M. Menino had decried as unreasonable. Walsh’s mayoral opponent, Councilor at Large John R. Connolly, had pledged to stand up against the arbitrator’s ruling if elected. After his mayoral defeat, he did not vote in the council’s 12-to-0 decision to sign off on the raises.

The binding arbitration bill was one of dozens of measures discussed at Wednesday’s hearing and was mentioned sparingly. The bulk of those who testified before the panel came to argue in favor of a House bill that would return the right to collectively bargain to Lawrence school teachers.

The state took control of Lawrence’s struggling school system in 2012, a decision that authorized an appointed receiver to make changes outside collective bargaining.

Among those who spoke in favor of Walsh’s binding arbitration bill were representatives from the International Brotherhood of Police Officers and the Massachusetts Police Association. Those speakers stressed that when the state had a binding arbitration rule in effect in the 1970s, the 22 cases decided by an arbitrator were split down the middle: 11 rulings in favor of the city or town and 11 rulings in favor of the union.

“What could be more equitable than that?” said Ray McGrath, who spoke on behalf of the IBPO and the National Association of Government Employees. “It broke right down the middle.”

A representative from the Massachusetts Municipal Association spoke against the bill, while Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson testified passionately against a similar measure, filed in the state Senate, that would adopt binding arbitration at the county level.

“We think the [arbitration] process as it is now is currently working,” said Katie McCue, the MMA’s legislative analyst.

Wesley Lowery can be reached at wesley.lowery@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @WesleyLowery.
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