A recognizable spokesman may have emerged at the Capitol on Wednesday for moderate Republicans — RINOs, if you prefer — who support Tennessee teachers’ unions.
And he says the push to eliminate teachers’ collective bargaining leverage in local school districts may not be a done deal in the GOP-controlled Legislature.
“I don’t think the legislation will pass in the House,” Elizabethton Rep. Kent Williams said. He added that he believes there are “enough commonsense Republicans in the House, as myself, to kill this piece of legislation.”
Of course, Williams isn’t actually a Republican anymore — although he considers himself one. He was officially ousted from the party and became an independent after cutting a deal with House Democrats in January 2009 to assume the role of speaker.
But the ranking Republican on the House floor, Gerald McCormick, said Wednesday evening that Williams’ instincts on the collective bargaining issue probably aren’t far from the truth.
“He may be close to right on that,” the House majority leader told TNReport. Some members of the House GOP caucus may not want to do away with collective bargaining, the Chattanooga Republican said.
Williams has signaled in the past few months that he’s interested in trying to win his way back into the good graces of his former party — though now he seems to be taking an unorthodox approach to doing that.
“We’re infringing on people’s rights, on our citizens’ rights. And it’s just not right,” Williams said of bills in the House and Senate that seek to prohibit local school boards from negotiating “with a professional employees’ organization or teachers’ union concerning the terms or conditions of professional service.”
The House version of the bill is sponsored by GOP Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart. The Senate version, spearheaded by Sen. Jack Johnson, is expected to be put to a floor vote after Gov. Bill Haslam’s Mar. 14 budget address. Jackson said Thursday he doesn’t want to weaken the bill with compromises, but said he might be willing to write some limited changes in.
With regards to some GOP lawmakers’ focus on collective bargaining, Williams said he just doesn’t get it. “I’m trying to comprehend why we even have this legislation, with the important issues that we are facing today,” he said.
“I’d like to ask the sponsors — and I will when it comes to committee — I will ask them if they would have gotten the political contributions that they demanded from the TEA, would we have this legislation today? I doubt it.”
The former House speaker was responding to questions as he watched a Democratic lawmakers’ press conference called Wednesday to accused Republicans of “continuous attacks on teachers, students and working families.”
“Everybody here knows this is a slap in the face to the teachers in the state of Tennessee,” Williams said to cheers from the Tennessee Education Association supporters on hand.
Williams sounded just as passionate in his defense of unionized teachers as Democratic Rep. Mike McDonald of Portland and Sen. Eric Stewart of Belvidere, who led the midday press conference at Legislative Plaza. Together they demanded Republicans call off their education reform bills.
College Grove Republican Rep. Glen Casada, a sponsor of a bill the TEA dislikes, said Williams and Democrats are wrong when they say the GOP is motivated to confront the teachers’ union merely over money.
Frustration with the TEA has been brewing in GOP circles for a long time, and more than anything it is rooted in the TEA’s penchant for stopping or watering down Republican-favored education reform legislation, said Casada, the former House Republican Caucus chairman.
Casada, who is pushing a bill to end automatic payroll deduction of government employees’ union dues, is the GOP lawmaker at the center of the TEA’s allegation that Republicans are out for union blood primarily because the TEA refused to fork over more campaign funding for GOP candidates.
In an interview with TNReport, Casada acknowledged that last year he did indeed attempt to secure a more “equitable” share of the TEA’s political spending, which the union rebuffed.
But Casada said such fundraising activities are a common aspect of the caucus chairman’s job description, and that Democrats and Republicans alike often call on groups and individuals and suggest they give more money to the party. It is also standard, he said, to point out when a group seems to be “favoring the other side” — at which point the next question that usually gets asked is, “Can you balance it out?”
“When I first called (TEA), the reports showed that they had given $180,000 to Democrats and $6,000 to Republicans,” said Casada. “I called the TEA and said, ‘Fellas, is this equitable, is this fair?’ That was pretty much the word I used. And then I said it is not fair.”
Casada said the TEA then upped their giving to Republicans a tad, but “it wasn’t that much.” He said contribution reports indicated later that TEA had given $194,000 to Democrats and somewhere between $10,000 and $14,000 to Republicans.
“That’s when I called the second time and said, ‘Here’s what the numbers show. Can you not be equitable in your giving?’ And they said ‘no,’ and that’s the way it is,” said Casada.
He maintains, though, that whatever annoyance Republicans felt over the contribution issue had nothing to do with the raft of GOP-sponsored legislation targeting the union. Many Republicans simply regard “collective bargaining (as) a harmful process,” he said.
“It creates a level of bureaucracy between the employee and the school board, in this case,” Casada said.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the leading Republican in the Senate, said the outrage expressed by Democratic lawmakers and TEA leadership over the political contribution issue rings a little hollow, given that the minority party appears “bought and paid for by the unions.” TEA and Democrats have colluded to “defy even the most commonsense reforms to education,” Ramsey told reporters Wednesday.
Asked to respond to the suggestion that teachers’ union money buys a lot of Democratic influence and votes, Stewart said, “I only answer to my God and my wife.” He added that TEA tends to favor Democrats over Republicans “because we show appreciation, dedication and determination to help (teachers).”