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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weaken or derail the bill, but only a few tinkering with technicalities passed — the rest were either tabled or later withdrawn.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.

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).”