House Speaker Beth Harwell, right, speaks to reporters in Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday, May 11, 2011, after casting a tiebreaking vote to advance a bill to curb teachers’ collective bargaining rights out of the Finance Committee. At left is House Republican Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart, R-Henderson, and a main sponsor of the bill. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)
NASHVILLE — A GOP-backed bill limiting teachers’ collective bargaining rights scraped through the House Finance Committee 13-12 Wednesday, with Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell providing the tie-breaking vote.
Three Republicans joined all nine Democrats in voting no, and another abstained. They fear the bill will be changed on the House floor or in a conference committee to mirror the Senate version, already passed, which abolishes collective bargaining rights entirely.
The House bill now goes to the Calendar and Rules Committee, where it is expected to pass and then go to the floor.
Democrats called the bill an “attack on teachers.”
Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, alluded to efforts by Republicans in other states to weaken or abolish collective bargaining by teachers or other public employees.
“I know the game plan,” Brown said. “But I always hoped somewhere deep in my heart that we were bigger and better than that in Tennessee, and now you have demonstrated we really are not.”
Republican Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, said the bill isn’t aimed at teachers but their primary union, the Tennessee Education Association.
“I’m here to tell you again we are not, for the record, attacking teachers,” Maggart argued. “We’re trying to make sure we have every tool available to advance student achievement.”
Maggart voted yes on the bill, but she wouldn’t say whether she would pull the bill if the full repeal provision is attached.
Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the Senate speaker, said GOP senators will keep fighting to eliminate the 33-year-old collective bargaining law should the measure go to conference committee.
“While I remain open to working to resolve concerns about this bill, there can be no compromise on the meat of the measure: the full repeal of the 1978 law,” Ramsey said.
The House bill would prohibit teacher unions from lobbying over merit and differential pay and stop payroll deduction for union dues.
Jerry Winters, chief lobbyist for the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Tennessee Education Association, warned “teachers are ticked off at this legislature” and believe lawmakers have “wasted a lot of time ... trying to solve a problem that does not exist.”
Republicans should not go home claiming they have helped education, he said.
“That’s not going to fly with them [teachers],” Winters said. “That’s not going to fly with the general public. They’re not stupid.”
He also wondered if eliminating collective bargaining will affect the state’s $500 million Race to the Top money for education reform.
Lawmakers argued at length over whether Republicans would try what one Democrat later called a “switcheroo” on the floor and adopt the Senate bill.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said he personally favors scaling back teachers’ collective bargaining and not eliminating them completely.
“I don’t now if she [Maggart] knows she has the votes,” said McCormick, who voted for the bill to come out of committee.
Republicans have said the bill was brought to them by the Tennessee School Board Association, which the group has confirmed. Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville, repeatedly questioned how many school boards actually back the bill, saying the state’s largest systems — including Hamilton’s — are not supporting the bill.
Earlier this year, Hamilton County school board Chairman Everett Fairchild said the board had taken no position on the bill.
He questioned abolishing teachers’ ability to bargain collectively.
Brown said County School Superintendent Jim Scales contacted her in opposition to the bill.
Efforts to reach Scales were unsuccessful.
For Harwell, Wednesday’s vote was the second time she has been forced to break a tie to save the bill.
“I made a commitment to the members of the Republican caucus that they would have an opportunity to vote on this on the House floor,” she told reporters later. “In order for them to do that, this bill had to come out of committee today.”
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...