By Erik Schelzig
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Republican sponsor of a bill targeting the influence of the state’s largest teachers’ union says he is willing to revisit an element of the measure that prevents payroll deductions to be used to fund lobbying efforts at the Tennessee Capitol.
Under the bill signed into law this month by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, teachers’ professional organizations will no longer be allowed to use the payroll deductions for political purposes ranging from political contributions to lobbying and polling.
The provision is part of a measure replacing teachers’ collective bargaining rights with a concept called “collaborative conferencing.”
The Tennessee Education Association represents 52,000 educators and has long been a heavy contributor to Democratic candidates.
The measure also affects the smaller rival Professional Educators of Tennessee, which has been more supportive of other parts of the Republican bill. PET executive director J.C. Bowman said he agrees with the law’s ban on political contributions but not on the lobbying prohibition.
“I don’t have the angst or the burn or the anger of the banning of the political contributions,” Bowman said. “But I do think that lobbying will eventually be ruled unconstitutional, and the prohibition on that is probably wrong, even for the Tennessee Education Association.
“They have the right to lobby, just like we would,” he said.
Bowman, who previously served as an education analyst for former Republican Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said he spoke earlier this week with Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin and the bill’s main sponsor, about the lobbying issue and that Johnson agreed to reconsider that portion of the bill next year.
Johnson noted that Bowman’s group doesn’t engage in political contributions or mail pieces, but it does have a lobbyist.
“They consider that to be an administrative function of their organization, and would pay for it out of dues,” Johnson said. “And I think that is a very fair point.”
The lobbying element was added to the bill as the measure cleared the legislature in the next-to-last day of session, Bowman said.
“Somebody probably just threw it in at the last minute, or just didn’t stop to think what lobbying really means,” he said. “Everybody should have the right to lobby their elected officials.”
The Tennessee Education Association’s political action committee has given more than $718,000 to state candidates since 2005, but only 14 percent has been directed to Republicans.
Other public employee groups have diversified their contributions as Republican power in the Legislature has grown, but the TEA has kept its donations to Democrats at more than 80 percent over the last three election cycles, according to an Associated Press analysis of campaign finance records.
By contrast, the Tennessee State Employees Association’s PAC in the 2010 cycle gave almost equal amounts to Democrats and Republicans. As recently as the 2006 cycle, the TSEA’s committee gave 78 percent of its contributions to Democrats.
TEA lobbyist Jerry Winters said he doesn’t consider the union’s money misspent.
“I’d like them to point out where we’ve been wrong all along in who we’ve supported,” Winters said. “They’ve certainly not given us any more incentive to support any more Republicans based on what they did this session.”
Winters said those hoping to squelch the political influence of the teachers’ union may have inadvertently caused the opposite response.
“It’s obvious that we’re not going to change some of the minds of some of those legislators on our issues,” he said. “So frankly we’re going to turn our attention to try to change some of the legislators.”
Johnson is dismissive of suggestions that the TEA was subject to political retribution from Republicans.
“I do not like public sector collective bargaining because I think it’s unfair, it’s inefficient, and you’re pitting a union against taxpayers,” he said. “I’ve always felt that way, so if some want to call it political payback, I think that’s inaccurate.”
Johnson also welcomed any political challenge.
“I expect them to try to take a bunch of people who voted for the bill out in the next election, but that’s what policy discussions are all about and ultimately the voters will decide,” he said.
Winters said TEA has not been become a spent force in state politics.
“There’s no doubt we’ve been dinged up some in this session,” he said. “But we’re far from being out of business.”