Bike bill transformed into attack on teachers union PAC

UPDATE: The bill passed the Senate 21-9 Monday.

A bill that originally addressed how students should wear bicycle helmets will hit the Tennessee Senate floor today with an amendment critics say aims to punish the state’s largest teachers union for legal political activity, reports the Times-Free Press.

Sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, Senate Bill 151 began life last year as a measure urging the state Department of Education to include information in a pilot bicycle safety program about “the proper use and positioning of bicycle helmets.”

In last week’s Senate Education Committee meeting, Gardenhire introduced an amendment, quickly adopted, that completely rewrote the bill.

It no longer mentions bicycles or helmets.

Now the bill zeroes in on educators’ automatic payroll deductions to a professional organization that also runs a political action committee.

The Tennessee Education Association (TEA), which has thousands of members, is the only teachers group that fits the description. Another group, the Professional Educators of Tennessee has no PAC.

Gardenhire’s “Fair Access to Collection of Teacher Support Act” would bar employee dues check-offs by local school systems “for a professional employee organization, if any of that organization’s funds are contributed in any way to another organization that engages in political activity.”

TEA leaders, who had no inkling of what Gardenhire planned, were stunned.

“It would target TEA for its political activity,” charged Jim Wrye, TEA’s chief lobbyist. “It would eliminate payroll deduction for our members. We’ve had payroll deduction for decades. It’s just a slot on a paycheck just like United Way or the Farm Bureau or any other entity.”

Wrye argued that “teachers need to be politically active, you know, when we have all of these out-of-state special interests pouring in tons of money. We need to stand up for our schools and our communities.”

Asked about the amendment Sunday, Gardenhire said “one group has a monopoly of collecting dues” because many districts say their computers can’t work in other groups for automatic deductions.

“We’re giving an unfair advantage to a particular association and there’s other associations that are vying for membership and have a good representation. And we ought to treat them all equal.”

Moreover, Gardenhire also said he’s seen where TEA is “even now working on a way to set it up [dues deduction] up outside [local school systems], with people writing a check or through a credit or debit card. They’re already anticipating this. So I thought it would be a good time to get the process going and make sure everyone’s on an equal footing.”

But Gardenhire, vice chairman of the Education Committee, acknowledged the TEA’s political activity factored into the bill.

“That was certainly part of it,” the lawmaker said, but quickly added, “They’ve given me political contributions in the past. I just think it’s the right thing to do.”