House GOP chairman pushes new rules on teacher political activity

House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada has advanced – over Democratic objections – a bill penalizing teachers for on-the-job political activity while running into bipartisan opposition in an attempt to change state law on teacher donations to political action committees.

In the face of misgivings voiced by fellow Republicans, Casada has also abandoned for the year a bill that a Democrat depicted as a “setup” for stopping federal funding of pre-kindergarten programs in Nashville and Memphis.

Approved by the House last week on 68-27 vote, Casada-sponsored HB158 would make teachers subject to the state’s “Little Hatch Act,” enacted in 1970 and generally copying the federal “Hatch Act” that prohibits government employees from engaging in political activity while at work. Teachers are not legally considered state employees and are thus now excluded from the law — along with all local government employees.

State Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, declared in House floor debate that the bill would “precisely” tly cover a Bradley County teacher who last year sent political material through a school email account. He and most other Republicans applauded the bill as a means of assuring taxpayer dollars do not directly go to politicking.

With exceptions, the vote was generally along partisan lines – Republicans supporting, Democrats opposing. One exceptions was freshman Republican Rep. David Byrd of Waynesboro, a high school coach by profession. Byrd said teachers often participate in extracurricular activities and the bill opens the door to prosecution of those simply suggesting a vote for someone at a school football game of school fundraising event.

Casada said the “line of demarcation” is whether the teacher is on the taxpayer payroll. A coach being paid to attend a game, he said, would be covered; a teacher “on his own time” would not.

Democrats protested that an overtly politicking teacher – as in the Bradley County situation — is already subject to discipline under local school board rules and the bill is unnecessary.

House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh said the bill also creates “fuzzy areas” and questioned whether a teacher sending an email to a legislator would be engaging in prohibited political activity. Casada said the bill does not address that situation, though it may warrant debate at another time. Another Democrat questioned whether supporters of a teacher running for office would be covered if handing out campaign materials. Casada said they would not.

The Senate companion bill, sponsored by Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, has cleared committee with unanimous support and awaits almost certain approval in a floor vote.

In contrast, Casada faced open hostility from some Republicans when he brought HB1145 to the House State Government Committee last week. The bill sets new restrictions on members of organizations representing state or local government employees – the Tennessee Education Association, representing teachers, for example, as well as the Tennessee State Employees Association and groups representing police or firemen at the local level.

Among other things, the bill declares that government employees must explicitly declare they want a portion of their membership dues going to the group’s PAC and that state and local government entities cannot have a payroll checkoff that authorizes any portion of the dues going to political activity.

To support the bill, Casada brought in Kyle Mallory, a Stewart County teacher and Republican activist recently appointed a member of the State Textbook Commission, who described the measure as “a let’s-tell-teachers-the-truth bill.” He said most TEA members are unaware that some of their dues money can go to a PAC, adding that he is a member of Professional Educators of Tennessee, which competes with TEA as a teacher representative organization, in part because PET has no PAC.

But Rep. Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton, said the bill is “discriminatory” in banning one type of dues checkoff and not others while Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, said the measure is aimed at hurting groups once widely considered leaning towards Democrats and that is no longer the case.

Recognizing the bill faced committee rejection, Casada asked to postpone a vote and Todd initially moved to block any delay, apparently believing an immediate vote would result in outright killing of the bill. That brought a protest from Republican Rep. Ryan Haynes of Knoxville, who declared Todd’s move ”the rudest thing I have seen since I’ve been here.”

After convoluted maneuvering, the end result was postponing the bill from any further consideration until next year.

Casada has also abandoned efforts toward passage of HB159, which had won initial approval of a House subcommittee a week earlier, saying it had become the subject of “great misunderstanding” that he hopes can be remedied next year.

The bill basically declares that, if and when a court finds there is discrimination in federal funding for prekindergarten programs in Nashville and Memphis, those programs will terminate. Davidson and Shelby counties last year got $70 million in federal money to expand pre-k beyond to cover children excluded from the current limited state-funded pre-k program.

Casada said he fears that a judge will find there is discrimination in funding more pre-k in two counties than statewide, resulting in the state being ordered to fund an expanded program statewide. In committee, Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, said the bill amounts to a “setup to kill pre-k” in that no lawsuit on the subject has now been filed, but passage of the bill could prompt filing of such an action by those opposed to pre-k.

Another bill contingent on the outcome of legal action died last week. SB72 was described by sponsoring Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, as a way to ‘blow up Obamacare.”

It declares that, if the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of plaintiffs in the pending case known as King vs. Burwell, then Tennessee state government will be prohibited from operating a health care exchange as authorized under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey told reporters earlier that he opposed the bill because it is “more a political statement than it is good government.”