NASHVILLE-Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's refusal to take a public stand on GOP legislative efforts to strip teachers of collective bargaining power is drawing fire from an educators' group sympathetic to the anti-union bill.
"I think the governor needs to come out and make a decision on whether he's for it or against it," said J.C. Bowman, executive director of the 5,000-member Professional Educators of Tennessee.
"If he's against it ... he'll hurt himself among a lot of groups and a lot of people who have supported him," Bowman said.
A former Bradley County teacher, Bowman later served as chief policy analyst of the Education Policy Unit for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican.
The Professional Educators of Tennessee is a tenth the size of the 52,000-member Tennessee Education Association, which bargains collectively through its local affiliates.
Haslam spokesman David Smith declined to comment on Bowman's remarks. Haslam, who took office last month, has stayed out of the fray over collective bargaining and other initiatives attacking the TEA.
He told reporters last week he is focused on his own agenda, which includes changing tenure laws, eliminating the cap on charter schools and letting any student attend charter schools.
"We've presented those items that we think should be the prioritization for moving education forward," Haslam said when asked where he is on the anti-union bill. "We're going to lead; what we're going to focus on is the areas around tenure reform and charter reform because we think they can make the quickest difference. That's where you'll see our focus."
Republican governors in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio and New Jersey are taking the lead in GOP crusades against collective bargaining by teachers' and other public-employee unions.
In Tennessee, the effort has been spearheaded by legislative Republicans such as Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, and House Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville.
Earlier this month, the Senate Education Committee voted 6-3 for a bill that would gut a 1978 law requiring school boards to bargain in districts where most teachers have organized.
TEA affiliates bargain on pay, benefits and working conditions in 92 of the state's 136 districts, including in Hamilton County.
The organization is battling GOP attempts to ban collective bargaining and to end automatic withholding of TEA dues from teachers' paychecks.
Ramsey said collective bargaining hampers the state's ability to progress on education reforms. The TEA calls the moves "payback," noting that a House GOP leader last fall pressured the group to give more money to Republicans.
He acknowledged that the anti-union effort is "not one of [Haslam's] priorities."
But Ramsey, who lost to Haslam in the Republican gubernatorial primary, said that isn't a concern.
"That's not unusual," Ramsey said. "We're separate branches of government. We all have our own ideas. He's not opposed [to the bill]. He wants to be more out front on the tenure issue than he is on the collective bargaining."
House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said the collective bargaining bill remains under review, with leaders working to get it "to the point where we all feel comfortable with it."
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, also isn't faulting Haslam for not jumping on the anti-union legislation.
"I think Gov. Haslam has his own priorities and doesn't need to pick up on everybody's fight and get involved in them ... until he gets his priorities," McCormick said. "I don't think you can fault Gov. Haslam's wanting to pass his initiatives before getting involved in everyone else's."
McCormick said proponents are "having trouble getting a majority of votes" on the House Education Subcommittee for the identical version of the Senate bill.
But he predicted votes will there to get it out of committee, perhaps by adding language letting local voters decide whether to let teachers bargain collectively.
Bowman skirted questions about whether the group opposes collective bargaining outright, though he said it fosters an "adversarial relationship" with school boards and administrators.
But the organization's "talking points" for legislators, provided to reporters, defines the bill as "anti-collective bargaining" and said it "serves the best interests of students, teachers and school systems across the state."
TEA chief lobbyist Jerry Winters said that if the bill passes, Bowman will have "some explaining to do with his members."
Winters cited an analysis by the Legislature's Fiscal Review Committee. It says the state could save $16.1 million because it could "reduce funding for insurance premiums and other negotiated items in the absence of collective bargaining agreements."
Winters also questioned why Senate proponents are moving so quickly.
"I would think that the Republican leadership would give the governor an opportunity to move his legislation before they try to jump too far ahead of [Haslam]," Winters said.
"It does appear that the Senate leadership is not being fair to the governor and their top priority is not to make the governor look good in his attempts at education reform."
He said TEA has been talking with Haslam about his proposals on teacher tenure and charter schools and will continue to do so.