Rep. Jimmy Eldridge said he didn’t know prior to Tuesday’s House Finance, Ways and Means Committee meeting that he’d want to put off discussing anti-collective bargaining legislation.
But once the Jackson Republican saw that yet another lengthy amendment was being added to an already much-amended bill, it became clear to him that the House Education Committee was better suited to examine the rewrite than the finance committee. So he made a motion to send the bill back from whence it came.
Four other Republicans and nine Democrats backed him and in the process overpowered remaining GOP members of the committee, including GOP House Leader Gerald McCormick, who personally tried, but failed, to kill Eldridge’s motion.
But Eldridge said later his intentions were not to “derail” the push by his fellow GOP lawmakers that’s become the focus of so much attention this session. “My heart led me that way, and I wasn’t trying to kill it, or persuade it or affect it any way,” he said.
Nevertheless, Eldridge’s move brought to the fore the question of whether the effort to repeal the 1978 Education Professional Negotiations Act has enough support to pass the House this year.
McCormick told reporters Tuesday night he suspects not.
Despite the caucus leader’s perceptions, though, the one higher-ranking Republican in the House, Speaker Beth Harwell, said Wednesday it’s still too early to start writing postmortems for the legislation this year.
Harwell said the bill, HB130, still has a “razor-fine margin” of support and barring any other big surprises on track to ultimately pass.
The House Education Committee is expected next week to consider the new amendment, which closely resembles language in the Senate version of the bill — SB113 which won approval Monday — requiring districts to develop policy manuals on how they decide labor issues. The move kicks the bill two steps backward as it had already passed that committee along with the finance subcommittee.
The legislation also mandates that school boards sit down with teachers and their respective unions to discuss labor contracts, although the school boards would have the final say on what does or does not get implemented. Unions, however, would no longer enjoy de facto veto authority over school policies they oppose.
House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery said he “has a feeling” the body will OK it despite its highly volatile nature.
“This isn’t about teachers,” Montgomery said. “This is about trying to free up the system so that it operates better and we can all work together better as a team.”
But Montgomery added that he considers it vital to ensure that input from teachers is sought and heard by locally elected school officials.
“At the end of the day we are going to come up with a piece of legislation that I hope will let the teachers feel comfortable that they have a voice,” he said.
The five Republicans who voted to send the bill two steps back in the legislative process all cite different reasons for their actions, ranging purely from not wanting to get their hands dirty navigating through education policies to disagreeing with the underlying motives of the bill, which is the perception among Republicans that the 1978 law mandating local districts negotiate solely with unionized teachers is unfair, unproductive and often unnecessarily antagonistic.
That’s not a view accepted by Rep. Dennis “Coach” Roach of Rutledge. Like Maryville Republican Douglas Overbey in the Senate, Roach is with the Democrats on this one, and there’s nothing his fellow Republicans can put in the bill to make him vote for it because he feels the proposal does nothing to improve education or help teachers.
“I can’t support it in any form right now. You add one bad amendment, take off a bad amendment add another bad amendment, it still does the same thing, and what they’re trying to do is the same thing no matter what amendments are on the bill,” said Roach.
Scotty Campbell, of Mountain City, said he’d rather be talking about the government solving persistent unemployment problems and securing disaster-relief funding for his constituents instead of getting sidetracked by thorny debates over the nature and merits of public sector employee unionization.
“We were in the finance committee. I’m not on the education committee. I’m not on the education subcommittee,” said Campbell. “I’m not an education expert, so I voted to refer the legislation back to its proper place.”
Rep. Jim Coley said he voted for the delay not because he’s a teacher and member of the Tennessee Education Association — which is directly affected by the bill — but because the finance committee isn’t equipped to be responsible for the new thrust of the collective bargaining ban.
But the Bartlett Republican said he’s not sure what side of the issue he’ll be on when it’s time for him to vote. And he’s not sure it’ll have enough votes to get to the floor.
“I think the committee is divided. I think you can tell by the vote to send it back to education that there’s some division among Republicans and more unanimity among Democrats,” said Coley. “I think it will be a close vote, either in the committee or on the House floor.”