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.”