Posts

TN GOP Sees Vote of Confidence in Wisconsin Recall Election

Republican leaders say the failed recall election in Wisconsin bodes well for GOP lawmakers here, who will face voters for the first time since overhauling hiring practices for teachers and state workers.

If anything, it says Tennessee is headed in the right direction, said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.

“The takeaway that I have is that the general public understands that we can’t be giving away the farm, so to speak, to public employees and expect to balance our budget,” said Ramsey, R-Blountville.

Last week, 53 percent of Wisconsin voters opted to keep embattled Republican Gov. Scott Walker in office after push back against changes to collective bargaining practices for most state workers.

The election was watched closely by politicians around the country as a litmus test for how far voters are willing to go with public-employee reforms. Tennessee politicians had particular reason to pay attention.

Since Republicans took charge of the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature in the 2010 election, Tennessee lawmakers have made broad changes to employee rules and significantly curbed union power.

Lawmakers replaced teachers’ collective bargaining practices with “collaborative conferencing” in 2011, giving school boards autonomy to establish hiring and personnel rules without needing to win union approval.

At the time, union advocates said they would punish lawmakers at the polls for weakening organized labor, at one point saying Republicans were advocating “fascists measures” and were engaging in “terrorism against our teachers.”

Attempts to reach pro-union leaders, including House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, and the Tennessee Education Association’s lobbyist, Jerry Winters, and executive director, Al Mance were unsuccessful as of this posting.

This year, lawmakers rewrote hiring and firing practices for state civil service workers by allowing the administration to put considerations like employee performance ahead of seniority when making personnel decisions.

With the primaries less than two months away, many lawmakers’ own job security now rests in the hands of the voters. House Speaker Beth Harwell is confident her party’s stance will be rewarded at the polls.

“I think we made a good public policy for the state of Tennessee, for the children of this state,” said Harwell, R-Nashville. “And I think Wisconsin actually verified that with their vote.”

Union influence in Wisconsin has always been much stronger than in Tennessee, noted Gov. Bill Haslam. But he says the voters’ clear-cut decision to keep Walker is a reflection of a changing attitude toward the financial responsibility of governments in general.

“We’re spending more than we bring in. We can’t do that forever,” the governor said. “Does the U.S. have the stomach to make the hard choices? I think you just saw Wisconsin say, ‘We do.’”

The Winding Political Path of Gerald McCormick

The first powerful person to help Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick in a political campaign was the governor at the time — Ned McWherter, a Democrat.

That’s because McCormick was a Democrat, which might surprise many followers of the Republican lawmaker, who has emerged as one of the key voices on Capitol Hill.

It was 1992, and McCormick, a Chattanoogan, a University of Tennessee graduate and a Gulf War veteran, was running for the first time. He lost. After his defeat, Republican organizers in Chattanooga, including Zach Wamp, told McCormick a lot of the positions in McCormick’s message sounded like they belonged in the Republican Party. Wamp should know. He had once been a Democrat, a Jimmy Carter supporter.

“It was true. I was a very conservative Democrat,” McCormick said.

So McCormick became a Republican.

“They invited me in. I did it and have not regretted it since. They opened their arms up. The Republican Party in Hamilton County in particular has been really good to me,” McCormick said.

“I saw Governor McWherter several years ago when I was elected to the Legislature. I reminded him who I was. He said, ‘It’s really good to see you. Glad to see you made it to the Legislature finally.’ I said, ‘Governor McWherter, I just want you to know I did make it to the Legislature, but I was elected as a Republican instead of a Democrat.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘Well that’s all right. Everybody has to be something.'”

McCormick said he felt more comfortable with a limited-government philosophy, and he notes Ronald Reagan, also once a Democrat, is another example of switching to the Republican side. McCormick said he believes former Democratic Gov. Buford Ellington — elected to the office twice, serving from 1959-63 and 1967-71 — would probably have had a hard time today being a Democrat.

McCormick had been campaign chairman for Republican Rep. Bobby Wood of Harrison, and when Wood retired from his seat after 28 years, McCormick ran for it and was elected in 2004. He has since climbed to one of the most powerful positions in the state.

He began to see trends turn Republican in the Legislature after the 2006 election. He had been the assistant majority leader and wanted to run for speaker this year, but after gauging his level of support and recognizing that others, like eventual Speaker Beth Harwell, had more seniority, McCormick went for the majority leader’s position successfully. At 49, he now guides a Republican contingent that includes moderates and conservatives, not an easy mix to control.

In a wide-ranging, hour-long conversation with TNReport.com, McCormick talked about the collective bargaining issue that became so prominent in the General Assembly this year, the changing roles of the majority and minority parties in the Legislature, his personal background and his thoughts on Gov. Bill Haslam.

Repeatedly in the interview, McCormick spoke of the heavy responsibility of being the majority party in governing and said the voters could “pitch us out” as fast as they threw the Democrats out of power.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, in a separate interview with TNReport, said, “I think Gerald did a really good job this year. It was his first term, as my first term as minority leader, we were sort of muddling through together.”

Fitzhugh said he particularly appreciated the way McCormick handled the contentious issue of extending unemployment benefits, an issue Democrats felt strongly about.

Fitzhugh did refer to McCormick as “mercurial” and even compared him to temperamental House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner. McCormick readily admits he will mix it up with the best of them.

“Rather than ‘mercurial’ I would say ‘passionate,'” McCormick said. “Mike Turner is the same way. He’s a very honest person. If he’s mad at you, he’ll let you know. I’m the same way. I feel like people need to know. If you’re upset with them, it’s better just to tell them and have the discussion right away rather than letting it fester.

“That’s been my approach to life. It usually works. Sometimes it backfires a little, and sometimes maybe I should count to 10 before I say something.”

McCormick was one of the most notably irritated Republicans on the tumultuous day in 2009 when Rep. Kent Williams, a Republican from Carter County, made a deal with Democrats that resulted in Williams being elected speaker of the House.

“I shared my feelings with Speaker Williams at the time,” McCormick said. “It’s not personal. It’s really not. He broke his word, and he affected a lot of people’s lives.

“We had people who had literally rented apartments on the idea that he was going to vote with the majority and elect Jason Mumpower speaker. We had people who had quit jobs and moved up here, and he didn’t tell us the truth. I thought he needed to hear it very soon and very decisively that I disagreed with what he had done.”

McCormick said he and Williams are on good terms now. He even messaged Williams a happy birthday last month.

McCormick said while he and Fitzhugh have policy differences that Fitzhugh has been very effective for the Democrats, particularly on budget issues.

McCormick admitted he did not foresee the collective bargaining bill — which diminished the Tennessee Education Association’s power to negotiate for the state’s teachers — as becoming the dominant issue it was this year.

“In a broad philosophical sense, I don’t think government employee unions ought to be negotiating with other government employees with the taxpayers’ money,” McCormick said.

“Having said that, I’ve never said that on the campaign trail before and have never been elected on that basis, so I tried to take it slow and analyze it as we went along. In the end, we probably did the right thing, in that we lessened the influence of the teachers’ union over education policy while still keeping the teachers involved.”

The Legislature wound up with a “collaborative conferencing” law that watered down the TEA’s power.

The bill on collective bargaining was resented by teachers who crowded the halls of the Capitol and marched on Legislative Plaza this year.

“I’m surprised at how the volume has turned down so soon after we passed the legislation,” McCormick said. “We had a lot of noise in the beginning. As more people understand it, I think they have become accustomed to it and are more comfortable with it.

“Really the only people who are bitter about it are the union activists, who quite frankly did a better job of taking care of themselves than they did the average teacher out there in Tennessee.”

McCormick said the teachers union had become “virtually a financial arm of the state Democratic Party.”

Times have changed substantially since 2004 in terms of Republican strength in the General Assembly.

“It’s a lot different being in the majority,” McCormick said. “Now, you have the responsibility of actually governing. When you’re in the minority, you don’t, and you can pretty much throw grenades and see where they land and not have to worry about implementing the policy. Now, if we come out for a policy, we actually have the votes to pass it, and we have to make sure it’s a responsible policy and one that we can implement.”

He understands the Democrats’ predicament.

“You have to remember they were in the majority for a century or more. They’re not used to not getting their way,” he said.

“Most of the time we could ignore them. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do, on a number of levels. They got elected by the people of Tennessee, too. From a practical standpoint, if they get up and walk out, we won’t have a quorum. I don’t think they’re going to do that, as long as we treat them fairly.”

He remembers quite well another time and another political landscape at the Capitol.

“When I started out, Jimmy Naifeh was the speaker of the House. Quite honestly, I couldn’t imagine a situation where anybody else was the speaker of the House,” McCormick said. “He was so dominant, and so effective, not necessarily doing what I wanted him to do, but the trains ran on time when he wanted them to.”

McCormick was a nuclear, biological and chemical specialist in the Gulf War. A sergeant, he was sent to the war soon after the Iraqis invaded Kuwait. Because of his area of training, which came at Fort McClellan in Alabama, McCormick saw some of the planning for the war and was in one of the first units to go, spending about six months there.

A native of Jackson, McCormick grew up in Memphis, went to Germantown High School and attended the University of Tennessee, where he met his future wife, Kim, a Chattanoogan. Upon graduation they moved to Chattanooga. McCormick admits he got homesick for Memphis in college and wanted to go to Memphis State, now the University of Memphis, but his mother insisted he stick it out at UT, where he took a lot of political science and history courses.

He has worked a lot of jobs, including roofing and fast food. He picked up garbage on the side of the road while with a temporary employment agency. He eventually worked for the Hamilton County assessor of property, where he was trained to be a commercial real estate appraiser, and he transitioned into being a real estate broker and developer, his current profession.

When he’s not working on real estate projects, McCormick is in a position now in Nashville that puts him on the front line of government power, including leadership meetings with the governor.

“I’m very impressed by a number of aspects of Governor Haslam’s style of operating. No. 1, I think he is absolutely completely honest. I don’t think we will ever see any kind of a personal scandal or a political scandal surrounding Bill Haslam,” said McCormick, who had supported Wamp in the Republican gubernatorial primary last year.

“He acts in a small group exactly how he acts in a big group. He’s a very nice, decent person.”

He cited an example of Haslam’s style, where McCormick was making points about the political aspects of a specific issue.

“He cut me off. There were about four of us in the room,” McCormick said. “He pointed to each one of us, and he said, ‘What’s the right thing to do? What’s the right thing to do? Don’t worry about the politics of it.’ I think he really believes that.”

Expect More to Get More from Education: Haslam

Gov. Bill Haslam offered some simple math for a group of educators in Memphis on Wednesday and called it a “recipe for a problem.”

He started with the statistic that only 21 percent of the state’s population has a college degree. The national figure is about 30 percent. Some 20 years ago, the United States ranked first in the world in the percentage of the population with a degree.

“Today we’re ninth,” Haslam said. “If Tennessee were a country, we would rank about 79th in the world in percentage of adults with a degree.”

Haslam indicated he subscribes to estimates suggesting more than half the jobs created in the foreseeable future will require workers to have a degree. If that proves true, it’ll pose problems for Tennessee, said the governor.

It was another in Haslam’s long list of examples of how jobs and education are linked. Yet he hardly believes he is the first governor to emphasize the importance of education.

Haslam spoke to a conference of the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence at the Presbyterian Day School, an event that allowed him to hook up with long-time friend and past business partner Brad Martin, head of a venture capital firm and philanthropist. They sat next to each other on the stage.

Haslam told the audience that the most important task is to “change the culture of expectation around education.”

He noted that the state ranks in the 40s among the 50 states in education.

“People ask, ‘How did you wind up in the 40s?'” Haslam said. “We expected far too little.”

Haslam said he had read recently about Austin Peay, governor of Tennessee in the 1920s, who said he was going to be the education governor. Peay had a long line of successors with the same message.

Haslam cited some efforts like his own education reform agenda, which includes revamping teacher tenure and adding charter school options, but he said those steps aren’t the whole solution, and he said since the state still ranks in the 40s in education it’s a sign that what the state has been doing hasn’t been working.

Haslam said someone asked him recently if he could have 500 more of something — whether it be “500 farmers, engineers, linebackers, bankers, or anything” — he knew what he would choose.

“My answer is simple. It would be 500 more great principals,” he said.

Haslam has spoken often about principals. He frequently tells groups that if they walked into any school, after a short amount of time, they could tell if the school had a good principal or not, and that the principal wouldn’t even need to be there for them to draw a conclusion.

“How can we more effectively select and train and give feedback to principals?” he asked rhetorically. “I think if we can do that, we can move the needle quicker than anything else.”

Haslam continues to be big on the amount of data available on student performance in the state in order to evaluate teachers. The value-added assessments of students have been a treasure trove of information to have as a resource, and Haslam repeated his belief that the state should move now to make those evaluations, instead of waiting for a perfect set of measurements.

He said if the Haslams had had that kind of data in terms of their business, Pilot Corp., which owns a chain of truck stops and convenience stores, the company “could have competed incredibly more effectively.”

The governor said he talked to his brother, Jimmy, who is the head of Pilot, recently and told him he couldn’t believe how many talented people are going into the field of education, much like another generation went into the Peace Corps to try to change the world.

And he used that observation to form a message to teachers.

“I’m very grateful for what you have decided to do with your life,” Haslam said.

“There is no profession I know of today that is as critical to making our state a better place to live and work and play than teaching.”

Freshman Rep. Elam Touts Accomplishments of TN’s ‘Historic Conservative Majority’

Press Release from the House GOP Caucus, June 8, 2011:

Mount Juliet Legislator Calls First Session the Most Successful in Tennessee History

(NASHVILLE, June 8, 2011) – After years of near one Party control in Tennessee politics, Republicans won control of the Governor’s mansion, Senate, and House for the first time in the history of the State. Representative Linda Elam (R—Mount Juliet) played a key role in the opening session of the 107th General Assembly and Tennesseans immediately benefitted from the conservative leadership.

“It is an honor to be a part of such a historic conservative Majority,” remarked Rep. Elam. “Tennesseans understand we pushed through a conservative, pro-growth agenda that reflects their values. They can take heart that, finally, their Representatives in Nashville are listening to them.”

The first Session was marked by conservative milestones many Tennesseans have worked hard to see come to fruition. Among those items:

  • Tort Reform: This was a key centerpiece for the Governor’s jobs agenda and the General Assembly fashioned a new law that provides certainty in the business environment. With this confidence, more companies are better able to quantify the cost of doing business and can allocate more resources to provide jobs for Tennesseans.
  • Charter Schools: The Republican Majority lifted the cap on charter schools in Tennessee, ensuring that all children across the State will have access to a high quality education. Republican legislators, like Representative Elam, understand the key to long-term job growth in Tennessee is in the training of a strong workforce.
  • Collaborative Conferencing: In a major reform unlike any seen across the country, conservative legislators pushed through a new model for education that allows all teachers to have a voice when it comes to setting education policy and removed the barriers set up by the union so our hard-working teachers can be rewarded at a higher rate.
  • Ban on Income Tax: The process was started for a constitutional amendment in Tennessee that would forever prohibit an income tax from being levied on Tennesseans. The process for an amendment is long, but this Republican Majority is united in ensuring this common sense, pro-jobs measure becomes law.
  • Government Reform: In a move to increase transparency and efficiency for taxpayers, the House eliminated a number of duplicative committees that caused confusion for many citizens trying to follow legislation through the General Assembly. With this reform, bills will travel on a streamlined path that provides Tennesseans a format to voice their concerns on legislation. Additionally, the move saved Tennesseans nearly $1 million.
  • The State Budget: Republicans passed a fiscally conservative budget that reflects the principles of Tennesseans and meets the needs of our State. Overall, the Republican Majority reduced spending by $1.2 billion and rolled back a number of areas of duplicative government programs.

While much focus was given to these high-profile pieces of legislation, there are a number of other new laws that were ushered through to make government more responsive to Tennesseans and limit the influence of government regulation. Rep. Elam helped guide a number of these bills to final passage, a noteworthy achievement for a first-year legislator. Among the legislation she co-sponsored:

  • Voter Photo ID: This bill ensures integrity at the ballot box, something Tennesseans have long asked for. Essentially, voters are asked to present a valid photo ID to obtain a ballot. Parallel legislation passed to ensure citizens who may not have an ID can obtain one for free. These laws will protect Tennessee from having to deal with ballot box abuse and voter fraud.
  • Welfare Reform: This new law will prevent abuse of the Families First benefits program. It places common sense requirements on those utilizing taxpayer-funded benefits such as a prohibition against drug use or enrollment in a drug treatment program.
  • Voting Reform: This new law authorizes the coordinator of elections to compare the statewide voter registration database with the department of safety database, relevant federal and state agencies, and county records to ensure non-United States citizens are not registered to vote in this State.
  • Veterans’ Families: This legislation extends property tax relief to the surviving spouse of a soldier whose death results from being deployed, away from any home base of training and in support of combat operations. This was one way to honor the sacrifice our soldiers make in the line of duty.
  • Wilson County: Representative Elam guided a bill designating the bridge at State Route 109 and U.S. Highway 70 in Wilson County as the “Spc. Michael Lane Stansbery, Jr.” bridge to honor one of Wilson County’s fallen soldiers.

In reflecting on the reforms passed by the House of Representatives in her first term, Rep. Elam stated, “I tailored my personal record—the votes I took, the legislation I carried—to the wishes of my constituents. I heard them loud and clear last fall when they told me they wanted a government that is limited and respects our constitutional rights.” She continued, “Over the summer, I look forward to traveling around the 57th District and listening to the people once again. I am eager to get their feedback, bring it back to the Capitol next year, and work hard to make the Volunteer State an even better place to live, work, and raise a family.”

For a complete listing of Representative Elam’s legislative record, click here.

Harwell’s End-of-Session Recap

Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, Posted the Following Letter on Facebook, June 3, 2011:

The first session of the 107th General Assembly adjourned late Saturday night, May 21st, after we aggressively worked the last several days to finish our business. We have a long list of accomplishments to point to, proving that it does matter who governs.

Governor Bill Haslam, Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey and I were united in our belief that in order to make government sustainable, we had to transform the way we did business. We made significant progress this year reducing the size of government, paving the way for job creation, and reforming education.

In addition, we adjourned earlier than we have in the past couple of decades. Compared to last year, our early adjournment saved taxpayers nearly half a million dollars in legislative operational expenses. We have shown that we take the responsibility of governing very seriously, and we will stay true to our principles as we do so.

Our top priority was a balanced budget with no new taxes or tax increases. This year’s budget is $1.2 billion less than last year’s. This includes $82.2 million in specific recurring reductions. The budget also fully funds education, and tucks money away in the Rainy Day Fund for the first time in three years, raising it to $327.7 million.

We had many accomplishments this year, including but not limited to the following:

  • Tort reform – Republicans have also fought for years to see passage of comprehensive tort reform legislation, and this year we were successful in passing a bill that will pave the way for jobs in Tennessee. This legislation will create an environment of predictability and certainty for businesses as they look to expand.
  • Tenure Reform – Our goal is to make sure our teachers are equipped with the best tools possible to educate Tennessee students. We want an effective teacher in front of every classroom, and we want those who are excelling to be rewarded. This proposal is absolutely key to education reform.
  • Charter Schools – Charter schools have a proven track record in Tennessee, and I am delighted that we are giving this opportunity to even more students. Every student in the state of Tennessee deserves the very best we have to offer in education, and charter schools play a huge role in reaching that goal.
  • Collaborative Conferencing – The legislature also acted on a bill that repealed the Education Professional Negotiations Act and moved to a collaborative bargaining process that will open a direct line of communication between teachers, administrators and school boards.
  • Reduction of Meth Amphetamines – We are always trying to stay one step ahead of those who manufacture meth, which is destroying our communities. Utilizing this tracking system will curb the ability of criminals to obtain key ingredients for meth, while not increasing the burden to consumers who need pseudoephedrine.
  • Election Integrity – To ensure the integrity of our elections, the legislature passed a bill to require photo identification to vote. This measure will reduce voter fraud, and make every vote count.
  • SJR 127 – The constitutional amendment will restore the right of Tennesseans to repeal or enact laws governing abortions within federal limits through their elected representatives.
  • E-Verify – This bill helps to ensure that those working in Tennessee are here legally. Illegal immigration has a large financial impact on taxpayers, and this legislation will address this problem.
  • Elimination of a dozen subcommittees – The principles of a limited and more efficient government were a priority this year. To that end, I eliminated a dozen subcommittees that I felt were duplicitous, a reform that helped us to work more efficiently.
  • Elimination of redundant committees – In times of economic hardship, taxpayers demand and deserve state government to be streamlined. To that end, we eliminated 11 “oversight” committees that duplicated the work of standing committees, saving taxpayer dollars.

We started this year with a Republican governor, and strong majorities in both chambers–for the first time in the history of our state. We set forth ambitious proposals for job creation and better schools, and due to the hard work of each state representative, we have done that. This was a very successful year.

As always, I appreciate your support. It was an honor to serve as Speaker of the House, and experience that was both humbling and rewarding. Thank you for placing your trust in me, and let me know if I can ever do anything to assist you.

Sincerely,

Beth

Maggart: TN Made ‘Stronger’ by Teachers Union Collective Bargaining Repeal

Press Release from the TN House Republican Caucus, June 1, 2011:

(NASHVILLE, June 1, 2011) – House Majority Caucus Chairwoman Debra Young Maggart (R—Hendersonville) released the following statement after Governor Bill Haslam signed the Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act of 2011 into law:

“Tennessee is a stronger State today because of this new law.

“Our Republican Majority set out to reform education by giving a voice to all teachers and prioritzing student achievement. We have done just that.

“A quality education is the lynchpin for building a better society. It leads to high quality jobs, a well-trained and better equipped workforce, and makes Tennessee an even more attractive destination for top companies. By removing barriers in communication and rewarding the hard work of our high performing teachers, we are securing a brighter tomorrow for Tennesseans.

“With the signing of this law today, individual achievement is the hallmark of education in Tennessee.”

House Approves Collective Bargaining Limitations

The Tennessee House and Senate have approved competing plans overhauling the state’s collective bargaining laws.

But both chambers’ leaders believe they’ll ultimately end up banning unions from negotiating teachers’ labor contracts once everything is said and done.

“I think the vote today indicated that we can get it passed if it’s reasonably drawn and reasonably written. I think we have the opportunity to pass it here,” House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, told reporters after she presided over a grueling four-hour debate on her chamber’s floor.

On a 59-39 vote, majority Republicans moved to scale back teachers’ collective bargaining powers.

Opponents included all the House Democrats, one independent and five Republicans. They pitched more than two dozen alternatives to weaken or derail the bill, but only a few tinkering with technicalities passed — the rest were either tabled or later withdrawn.

One opponent to SB113/HB13o, Democratic Rep. Mike McDonald of Portland, wheeled out an easel and poster boards to help illustrate what he thinks collective bargaining has accomplished to aide teachers beyond helping them get better contracts. The system has allowed them to pressure school boards into purchasing additional “instructional supplies” and other educational materials for their classrooms, he said.

A band of Republicans railed against the bill, too. The GOP caucus members who voted against SB113/HB130 included Reps. Scotty Campbell of Mountain City, Mike Harrison of Rogersville, Dennis “Coach Roach of Rutledge, Dale Ford of Jonesborough and Bob Ramsey of Maryville.

Independent Kent Williams also voted against the anti-collective bargaining legislation. The former state House speaker from Elizabethton hinted during the floor debate that the bill was no more than “political payback” because the Tennessee Education Association gives dramatically more money in campaign contributions to the Democratic Party than they do the GOP.

Republicans maintained that their efforts were solely about improving education in Tennessee, and that ultimately everyone — teachers, students and taxpayers — would benefit from loosening the union’s grip on policy and personnel discussions.

GOP lawmakers said they believe the TEA has become a force of obstructionism in education reform discussions over the years, and that the process of collective bargaining between a school board and a single employee organization to the exclusion of all others thwarts input and exchange of new ideas.

“We have allowed a professional organization to hijack education in our state for their own agenda,” said Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican.

Far from being an “attack on teachers,” as opponents of the legislation have painted GOP efforts for months this session, SB113/HB130 represents “the most empowering legislation I’ve seen in a long time for teachers,”said Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol.

Eliminating collective bargaining and allowing school boards to consider other viewpoints and voices when drafting new contracts for education professionals “will help (teachers) succeed,” said Lundberg.

Under the House proposal, teachers unions would no longer be able to negotiate salaries, merit pay, use of grant funding, teacher evaluations, personnel decisions along with policies relating to special education programs like virtual school districts.

Unions would, however, still be able to hammer out issues like benefits and staffing decisions.

Powerful Senate Republicans though have said all along they will accept nothing less than a complete repeal of the 1978 Education Professionals Negotiations Act, which mandates that school districts negotiate with a recognized teachers union.

Not only would the Senate prefer no mandate to collective bargaining, but they’d rather teachers and unions “collaborate” with school districts on issues they want to debate on — but ultimately leave those policy decisions entirely up to the school board.

The rest, they say, they’re happy to compromise on.

So what happens now?

The two chambers will likely play a short game of legislative ping-pong where the Senate rejects the House version of the collective bargaining overhaul then the House turns down the Senate version.

Then speakers from both chambers will name three lawmakers to represent the chamber in a conference committee, essentially a compromise group meant to hash out the differences between the two bills.

Harwell said she’d consider naming Education Chairman Richard Montgomery of Sevierville, bill sponsor Debra Maggart of Mt. Juliet and Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville to the committee. Although she will make the committee assignments later in the week, it’s unclear whether she’ll swap any of those members for a Democrat as conference committees traditionally included a member of the minority party.

That Was Then, This Is Now

Jimmy Naifeh, a 36-year veteran of the Tennessee General Assembly and House speaker for 18 of those years, is among the most vocal Democratic legislators opposing GOP efforts to limit or eliminate collective bargaining for public school teachers.

But this isn’t the first time the crafty Covington lawmaker has figured prominently in Tennessee’s tug-of-war between workers’ rights and respecting local school board autonomy.

He has, however, switched sides on the issue.

The legislation currently in the Tennessee General Assembly — the House version of which is scheduled for a vote on the chamber floor this evening — is an attempt to rein in or repeal the 1978 Education Professional Negotiations Act, a law that forces local school districts to bargain with unions when certain thresholds of teacher support are met. (UPDATE: The House on Monday put off voting on HB130 until Thursday.)

Under the terms of the 1978 law, still in effect today, when those conditions are met, a “professional employees’ organization” is awarded sole and formal negotiating authority to “(deal) with boards of education concerning, but not limited to, grievances, wages, hours of employment or conditions of work.”

The 1978 act was designed “to protect the rights of individual employees in their relations with boards of education, and to protect the rights of the boards of education and the public in connection with employer-employee disputes affecting education,” according to Tennessee state code.

When 30 percent of teachers in a district demand a vote to be unionized — and a majority of those teachers voting in the special election choose a union to represent them — then that union is awarded the designation as the district’s “exclusive representative” for teachers. That role gives the union sole privileges to negotiate on behalf of all teachers in the district. With that state-mandated recognition comes the power to exclude from labor discussions with the school board any and all competitors and individuals who wish to negotiate alternative or competing agreements.

The Act passed when Naifeh was in his fourth year as a state representative. The Senate passed it on a 20-10 vote. The House passed it 60-38. It was signed on March 10, 1978 by Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton, who, according to a Tennessean article written the next day, “made a surprise visit” to a Tennessee Education Association convention in Nashville so that teachers could witness him officially make it law.

But Naifeh was by no means then the champion of mandatory collective bargaining that he is now.

In fact, Naifeh and then-state Rep. John Tanner were “viciously opposed” to giving unions the power to force collective bargaining with local school districts, said Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, who was present at the debate and voted in favor of the 1978 Act. Tanner served 22 years as a United States Congressman from Tennessee’s 8th Congressional District after 12 years in the state House of Representatives.

“They tried every rule, everything in the book to stop it,” DeBerry said of Naifeh and Tanner.

Tanner didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.

In audio recordings of House floor debate over the 1978 Act, Naifeh can be heard attempting to add amendments to the bill that were derided by supporters of collective bargaining as delaying tactics or attempts to kill the union-friendly legislation.

Naifeh in 1978 was a supporter of local control, and he argued that the state was imposing its will on the districts by forcing them to recognize and exclusively negotiate with a teachers union.

“All I’m asking is that you give the people of your district the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to have professional negotiations,” Naifeh at one point pleaded with his House colleagues.

But between the fiery debates then and now, Naifeh has done a 180-degree change of course.

“I made a mistake, and I have admitted that many times,” Naifeh told TNReport earlier this legislative session. “At the time, it just didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t think it was the way to go.”

However, he added, “Once it got in place and all, I realized that we needed collective bargaining.”

And if anything, the former House speaker is even more adamant today in supporting collective bargaining for teachers than he was against the idea in 1978. He’s often among the most incensed Democratic voices as GOP-driven developments unfold seemingly beyond his or his party’s influence.

“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,” Naifeh thundered during one House subcommittee debate earlier this year.

Naifeh said he changed his mind on public-sector organizing after talking to school board members and his local director of schools, who told him “it gives them an opportunity to be able to sit down with the teachers and discuss these things in a very civil manner.”

“It may not have been a mistake then,” Naifeh said of his 1978 vote, “but today and even a few years after that, I can see where it was playing a role.”

Former Tennessee Education Association President George Kersey Jr. told the Tennessean in 1978 that the legislation was not “specifically designed for the TEA or its affiliates,” but would instead give teachers a choice about which organization could represent them.

Nevertheless, TEA has come to dominate teacher unionization in Tennessee, representing two-thirds of the 64,229 public and secondary school teachers. The other association that represents school employees in the state, the Professional Educators of Tennessee, has only about 5,000 teachers.

Jack Johnson, the Senate sponsor of the proposal to repeal collective bargaining and replace the system with a more open and less regulated system of communication between teachers and school boards, said he believes there’s little objective evidence to warrant continued support of mandatory collective bargaining in 2011.

“I think that it is clear if you look over the history of collective bargaining that it hasn’t worked,” said Johnson, a Franklin Republican who ushered his bill to passage in the Senate on an 18-14 vote earlier this month. “So, why he could be against it then and for it now, I do not understand.”

Johnson added that there’s “plenty of evidence where (collective bargaining) has created an adversarial and hostile relationship between teachers’ unions and the school boards.”

In fact, injecting a dose of political strife into how locally elected school boards conduct their affairs may have been partly by design. Responding to the suggestions that mandating collective bargaining would be a recipe for pitting teachers and school boards against one another, one lawmaker who supported collective bargaining commented during the 1978 House floor debate that “in some rural areas, tranquility and mediocrity have gone hand in hand.”

House records from that year reveal concerns about teacher input, and whether the bill would add to education problems or solve them — issues echoed in the current debate over tenure and teachers’ unions.

Then like now, teachers turned out in force at the Capitol to rally in support of state-mandated collective bargaining. They were “packing the galleries” during the House debate, according to the Tennessean.

Reid Akins, Andrea Zelinski and Mark Engler contributed to this story.

Amid Political Uncertainty, Collective Bargaining Bill Headed to House Floor

For the second time this session, Tennessee Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell had to throw a lifeline to a proposal to curb the power of unionized teachers to exclusively negotiate labor contracts with local school boards.

The Nashville Republican offered the tie-breaking vote Wednesday, 13-12, to advance a proposal restricting collective bargaining through the committee system. A similar intervention by Harwell was necessary to save the same measure, HB13o, back in March.

“I made a commitment to the membership of Republican Caucus that they would have an opportunity to vote on this on the House floor and in order for them to do that, this bill had to come out of committee today,” Harwell told reporters after the hearing.

Three Republicans voted with Democrats against the bill, including Rep. Scotty Campbell of Mountain City, Rep. Mike Harrison of Rogersville, and Rep. Dennis “Coach” Roach of Bartlett

Republican Rep. Jim Coley abstained, telling reporters later that he felt a conflict of interest because he belongs to the Tennessee Education Association. His urge, he said, was to vote against the bill, which likely would have killed it. Coley said he hasn’t decided if he would vote on the measure on the House floor.

There are two competing bills the General Assembly is considering. The House version would limit the issues teachers unions can bring to the collective bargaining negotiating table. A bill that has already passed the Senate would eliminate collective bargaining entirely by repealing the 1978 Professional Education Negotiations Act that currently requires school boards to negotiate labor contracts with one recognized teacher union in 92 Tennessee school districts.

GOP Caucus Chairwoman Debra Young Maggart, who is sponsoring the House legislation, was the only Republican during the committee hearing to spend any significant time defending the collective-bargaining rollback efforts, or attempting to argue they will benefit education in Tennessee.

“Saying over and over that this is an attack on teachers is a very nice talking point because I want you all to know that it’s not true,” said Maggart. “We are trying to make sure that we have every tool available to advance student achievement in our schools, that’s what this is about.”

But Democrats say they don’t buy that, and they also maintain there’s little public or local political support for the GOP-led effort to restrict union influence in Tennessee’s school systems.

“I think it’s the tail wagging the dog,” said Rep. Gary Odom, a Nashville Democrat who accused the original architect of the bill — the Tennessee School Boards Association — of driving the proposal without support from their local school boards. “I think this is an attack on teachers. I think it’s motivated politically. To me, until those in my community who work on education issues every day in their position, tell me this is good, how can I vote for it? How can you vote for it?”

Republicans on the committee offered little in the way of rhetorical defense of their caucus chairwoman, save the GOP majority leader, Gerald McCormick, who did so while admitting the collective bargaining bill is treading on thin ice.

“I don’t know that there’s the votes to pass the Senate bill. I honestly don’t,” McCormick told the committee, adding he prefers the House version himself.

Democrats on the other hand spent significant time arguing that passage of the Senate bill is a foregone conclusion — meanwhile admitting they fully understand the strategies being employed by Republicans, having been in the majority themselves only a short time ago.

“This is inside politics,” House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh told the committee after predicting the House will end up adopting the Senate version. “This is the way it’s done, and it’s a roughshod sometimes, and I’ve been on both sides of that.”

Speaker Emeritis Jimmy Naifeh outlined to the committee exactly what he thinks will happen to the bill, ultimately ending in the House adopting the Senate version although it never made it out of any House committees.

But Fitzhugh said he understands the reality of being in the minority.

“We know the votes. We know what the votes are. So something’s going to pass and I guess the lesser of two evils is the House version,” Fitzhugh told TNReport after the vote. “Like I said, I didn’t fall off a turnip truck. I can see what’s coming down the road.”