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House GOP Now Pitching More Modest Collective Bargaining Reforms

The Republican-controlled House Education Subcommittee approved a rewrite of a bill Wednesday so that it no longer proposes abolishing collective bargaining for teachers unions.

However, the wholesale revisions did nothing to calm passions over the contentious issue. The latest developments may in fact set the stage down the road for intramural Republican discord between compromise-oriented GOP moderates and confrontation-minded conservatives bent on revoking union labor-negotiation leverage and downsizing the Tennessee Education Association’s political heft.

After the vote that moved the bill, HB130, on to the full House Education Committee, Jerry Winters, chief lobbyist for TEA, expressed relief that the House measure no longer proposes completely doing away with collective bargaining.

Nevertheless, TEA is by no means ready to endorse the amended measure, he said.

Teachers unions could still, under the provisions of the amendment, collectively bargain over basic pay and benefits — however not in regard to teacher bonuses or merit-based incentives. Current law would also be altered to make decertifying a local union easier.

“It was a compromise, as I see it, within the Republican caucus,” said Winters. “This was not a compromise with the TEA. We’re still raising questions and we will continue to do that. Clearly, there wasn’t a firm majority in the caucus to move the repeal legislation forward. And I think maybe Rep. (Debra) Maggart certainly misjudged her support on that issue.”

Although Winters called it “huge progress” that, for the moment at least, House Republicans are no longer suggesting outright rescission of collective bargaining for teachers, he said he resented some of Maggart‘s rhetoric as she introduced her bill, which after the new amendment is now fully supported by House Speaker Beth Harwell.

During her seven-and-a-half-minute speech, Maggart declared the intent of the bill is to “remove politics from the classroom” and “rescue our state from the unimaginative doldrums we find our education system in right now.”

“For too long, under the old order, selfish political interests — the unions — have been allowed to dominate the discussion when it comes to setting the course of education in our state,” said Maggart, the House GOP Caucus chairwoman.

“Instead of discussing actual classroom policy and curriculum, our local school boards have constantly been dragged into debates that serve to build union influence and power, not the children we are all supposed to be concerned with. This isn’t a mere political failure. It is a moral failing.”

Maggart said the Legislature now has the “unprecedented opportunity to institute a game-changing reform that will forever tilt the balance of education back to individual teachers and the students they serve.”

The quality of public education in Tennessee has over the years lagged in comparison to other states, she said, and the GOP’s sweeping electoral gains offer a fresh start at addressing the issues.

“Last fall, a historic opportunity to lead was ushered in by the voters. They gave us a governor committed to reform, not just in education but throughout government,” Maggart said. “They strengthened our conservative hold in the Senate and gave us a majority in the House that has never been seen before. Why? Because Tennesseans are fed up with politics as usual in Nashville.

“This is especially evident in education, where reforms are desperately needed for the long-term health of our state.”

Winters afterward reacted sharply to Maggart’s characterizations of unions as impediments to progress.

He asked for an apology. He didn’t get one.

“I am very concerned about the tone set by the sponsor of this bill,” said the union lobbyist. “She went out of her way to be negative toward every teacher in this state. She owes the teachers of this state an apology. She owes the Tennessee Education Association an apology.”

House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, also took exception to Maggart’s remarks, especially that the bill is designed to remove politics from education policy discussion.

“I’ve never seen anything more political in my years in this Legislature than what has gone on in the first few months, and I am sick and tired of it,” said the former archnemesis of Republicans in their bygone minority-caucus days. His comment drew applause from union supporters in the audience.

Said Maggart during a press conference after the hearing: “I don’t know what I have to apologize for.”

Democrats were left shaking their heads over much of the day’s collective-bargaining bill developments. They expressed anger and frustration over not having had more than a few hours to study the amendment to Maggart’s bill, offered by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville.

Naifeh called Republicans’ parliamentary maneuvers to quickly amend the bill and move it along a “lot of garbage.”

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, the House Democratic leader, asked to delay the bill for a week to mull the amendment, a courtesy he said is typically standard when amendments are introduced on short notice.

“I seriously don’t know what the super big hurry is,” Fitzhugh said. “Apparently the governor has now embraced this bill. I did not know he had done that. And the speaker of the House has embraced this bill as well. Everybody else has seen it.”

Added Naifeh, “We’re making another unprecedented move toward rushing a bill through the subcommittee.

“We got this at 11:45 today,” he continued. “That’s when we first saw this amendment. I don’t see why we should take such hasty action.”

Republicans said they were prepared to take the time needed in the subcommittee meeting to go over the measure, item by item, so everyone could have their questions answered.

Not good enough, said Democrats, who argued that more time than a few hours was needed for everyone to fully digest the bill.

Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, complained that people in the audience, including those who had come from other parts of the state, deserved the opportunity to at least have copies of the Dunn amendment in order to follow the action. Staffers then made numerous copies and distributed them to the audience.

Naifeh objected again about the rush to adopt the amendment to the bill. But in due course he capitulated. “Mr. Chairman, don’t delay our agony anymore. Let’s go ahead with this,” he said.

The measure passed on an 8-5 vote along party lines.

Haslam said in statement that the amended bill “gives superintendents greater flexibility in making personnel decisions and supports my central focus of doing what’s best for children in Tennessee classrooms.”

Speaker Harwell said she particularly likes the bill’s “flexibility to pay good teachers more money” and that it “allow locals the flexibility to pay teachers that are willing to teach in low-performing schools more money.” Harwell told TNReport earlier this week she’s hoping at least some House Democrats come around to supporting the education-reform push underway in the general Assembly.

Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, who is sponsoring the Senate’s bill to ban collective bargaining, said Wednesday afternoon he hadn’t had a chance to fully examine the House’s new version, nor had he consulted in its drafting.

“We’re still trying to get a handle on it,” he said. “I’m probably still inclined toward a complete repeal of (collective bargaining). We’ll probably be making some decisions in the next couple days.”

Johnson’s bill, SB113, is awaiting a floor vote in the Senate, which he said could happen as early as Monday night.

Mike Morrow, Andrea Zelinski, Reid Akins and Mark Engler contributed to this report.

Voter-Roll Reform Heads to Governor

A measure that changes why a county election administrator can clean out voter rolls — purportedly aimed at minimizing the chances of a so-called political “witch hunt” — passed both chambers of the Tennessee Legislature overwhelmingly last week.

If signed by the governor, voters cannot be purged from the local voter rolls for minor mistakes on their registration forms after an office accepts the document and adds them to the rolls. A voter can only be removed if he or she knowingly provides false information on the form or uses a false signature.

Supporters of the legislation feared some people — particularly Democratic voters — were being removed from the rolls over innocent mistakes when filling out the form. Those individuals would then be unable to vote.

“The purpose of this legislation is to make sure citizens can rely on the local offices where they register to vote, (that) once they have completed a voter registration form and submit it…that they know they are registered to vote,” said Rep. Gary Odom, a Nashville Democrat and sponsor of the bill.

The measure emerged because Democrats feared Republican election administrators were using minor errors voters made on registration forms to target Democrat voters for removal from election rolls.

After the GOP gained control of the Legislature, about three dozen counties replaced their county election administrators with Republican appointees, as allowed by state law. Democrats suddenly on the outside looking in became frightened their partisan constituents would be unfairly ousted from the voter rolls by overzealous new election administrators.

Odom pointed specifically to Benton County, where almost 20 percent of the county’s voters received letters earlier this year saying their voter registration was invalid and they would have to re-register.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation officials are now looking into the claims and deciding whether to launch a full investigation, as requested by Odom, who is also the leading Democrat in the state House of Representatives.

Benton County Election Administrator Mark Ward denied Odom’s claims before the committee, saying his county’s rolls were not alphabetized when he took office, as required by state law, and the person he hired to alphabetize the rolls noticed a number of “discrepancies.” Ward said he purged the rolls at the guidance of Secretary of State Tre Hargett, a former Republican House leader who took office last year.

House Bill 3456, as initially drafted, would’ve only allowed a county election administrator to purge voters on the second year after a U.S. Census.

As passed, it now requires a Democrat and Republican member of each county election commission to periodically review voter registration forms to see if registrants are properly filling out the documents — a suggestion added by Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and former House Republican leader himself. Dunn said the requirement would “add another level of accountability” in county election offices.

The measure passed 93-1 in the House and 32-0 in the Senate.