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In Senate’s Tenure Bill, ‘Attacks on Teachers Continue’: Dems

Press Release from the Senate Democratic Caucus, March 10, 2011:

Republicans vote to change tenure requirements

NASHVILLE – Senate Democrats asked again Thursday why Republicans continue to focus on political payback against teachers instead of jobs creation and real education reform.

“We have spent yet another job-killing day telling our teachers that they’re the problem,” Democratic Leader Jim Kyle (D-Memphis) said. “I’m waiting for Republicans to start blaming teachers for our rising unemployment.”

Senate Bill 1528 would extend the probationary period for tenure from three to five years and would require teachers to meet evaluation levels that have not been fully implemented. Republicans voted in lockstep in support of the bill, which passed 21-12.

Republicans defeated an amendment by Sen. Eric Stewart (D-Belvidere) to delay the provisions of the bill until the necessary evaluation procedures had been fully enacted.

“We announced a plant expansion in my district yesterday, but we’re not up here talking about jobs creation,” Stewart said. “Instead, the majority party is focused on punishing teachers, printing their own money and ignoring Tennesseans.”

The House version of the bill is scheduled to be discussed in the Education Committee next week.

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Senate Democrats: GOP Pushing Teachers Away

Press Release from Senate Democratic Caucus; March 9, 2011:

Republicans Vote to Give Themselves Power to Appoint Teachers to State Pension Board

NASHVILLE – Senate Democrats voiced their concern Wednesday over a Republican bill to ban teachers from voting members onto the state pension board, in the first of many efforts to target Tennessee educators for political payback.

“Bills like these don’t help a single child, they don’t raise a single test score and they don’t help move education forward in Tennessee,” said State Senator Eric Stewart (D-Belvidere). “When it comes to education reform, we should be inviting teachers to the table. These bills push teachers away.”

Senate Bill 102 would take away the ability of teachers’ and retired teachers’ organizations to select their representatives on the state pension board. Under the bill, the Republican speakers of the Senate and House would receive expanded authority, despite their commitments to smaller government.

The bill passed 20-13 along party lines in the Senate during Wednesday’s session.

Monday’s floor vote is likely to be the first of many to ban teachers from basic rights such as organizing, making political donations and collectively negotiating classroom sizes, school schedules and pay rates. Many have questioned why Republicans would go after the same teachers who are currently implementing major education reforms under Tennessee’s First to the Top Act.

“Teachers should be our greatest allies, and I don’t understand why the majority party is choosing to make them into enemies,” said Sen. Tim Barnes (D-Adams). “We hope they will join us in working with teachers to ensure our children receive the best education possible.”

The House version of the bill is in a subcommittee.

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Education News

House GOP Support Weak for Outright Ban on Collective Bargaining: Fmr. Speaker Williams

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).”

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‘Health Freedom Act’ Headed to Senate Floor

Sen. Mae Beavers’ bill that attempts to block the most controversial component of the federal health care law had no problem moving along through the legislative process Tuesday.

The Senate Commerce, Labor and Agriculture Committee OK’d the bill by a 6-1 vote with Democratic Sen. Eric Stewart of Belvidere and Sen. Charlotte Burks of Monterey abstaining. Only Democratic Sen. Reginald Tate of Memphis voted against the bill.

SB79’s one minor speedbump during committee discussion included a short bit of questioning about an amendment Beavers added protecting businesses’ authority to require an employee enroll in a health plan.

Stewart, a Democrat who voted in favor of a similar bill last year, said he regarded it hypocritical to let employers force employees to purchase a company insurance as a condition of employment while at the same time attacking the federal government for its individual health insurance mandate provision.

Beavers countered that no one forces an individual to work for a particular company. She said her bill is aimed at positioning the state to help protect against the federal government coercing private individual behavior under penalty of law as a condition of living in American society. That’s different than a business requiring participation in a health plan as a condition of employment, Beavers said.

“A person has a choice of whether or not to work for that company that mandates that they take their health care so you still have a choice there,” said Beavers after the committee meeting. “Whereas with national health care, you’re not going to have a choice, you’re going to be required to take insurance.”

Passage of SB79 out of committee means the measure will make its way to the Senate floor. The House version still awaits a hearing. Beavers is also pushing a bill to create health care compacts in another strategy to derail federal health care reforms. She said she expects to take up that issue in committee next week.

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Press Releases

Democrat Stewart Criticizes AZ-Bound GOP Lawmakers

Press Release from Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere, July 29, 2010:

Republican Lawmakers Leave Districts in Crisis for Political Pandering Trip to Arizona

Sen. Stewart calls on Republicans to focus on issues in Tennessee, not Arizona

NASHVILLE – Amid soaring unemployment in their districts and pleas from voters to focus on jobs and the economy, Tennessee Republican lawmakers are flying to Arizona on Friday to present a do-nothing resolution to Arizona’s governor.

“Apparently Tennessee Republicans think political junkets to Arizona are more important than unemployment in their own districts,” said state Sen. Eric Stewart of Belvidere. “I get angry when lawmakers take the people they represent for fools and just downright lie to them about the facts.

“Make no mistake: this trip is all about politics and pandering. The resolution commends Arizona’s immigration law, but does absolutely nothing to address Tennessee’s illegal immigration issues.”

Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, Rep. Joe Carr of Lascassas and Rep. Tony Shipley of Kingsport will be among Republican lawmakers going to Arizona on Friday to present a nonbinding resolution that cost Tennessee taxpayers $500.

The trip comes a week after the Department of Labor revealed that unemployment rates in 72 Tennessee counties increased in June – including all of the counties that Ketron, Carr and Shipley represent.

Ketron’s district includes Marshall County, which has the state’s second-highest county unemployment rate at 16.7 percent, and the city of Columbia, which has the highest unemployment rate of any Tennessee city at 16.8 percent.

‘Tennessee Republicans like to talk big about illegal immigration, but they always side with their big-business buddies and deep-pocketed donors when Tennessee Democrats propose doing something about it,” Stewart said.

Stewart pointed out that Gov. Phil Bredesen has sent more than 1,000 National Guard troops to assist Border Patrol agents in securing our nation’s borders. Tennessee Democrats in the state legislature also attempted in 2007 to pass a law that would have required government agencies and private employers with public contracts to check employees’ immigration status against a national registry, harshly penalized those employers who still hired illegal immigrants and cut off social service payments to illegal immigrants.

The measure passed the Democrat-controlled House unanimously, but died in a Republican-controlled Senate committee when not a single Republican voted in favor of the bill.

“Tennessee Republicans are more interested in protecting their big-business buddies than they are in protecting our border, our jobs and our economic security,” Stewart said. “Republicans have a choice: Join Democrats in fixing Tennessee’s illegal immigration problem by punishing big businesses that exploit cheap labor at the expense of Tennesseans, or continue to waste taxpayer dollars and pander to people they don’t represent.”