NASHVILLE - State House members voted Thursday to heavily restrict collective bargaining for teachers following more than four hours of sometimes contentious debate.
Republican proponents said the measure will benefit students, but Democrats called it a politically inspired attack on teachers and their union, the 52,000-member Tennessee Education Association.
The vote was 59-39, with six Republicans lining up with Democrats against the bill.
GOP majority leaders successfully imposed rules twice to limit debate, first to five minutes for each member and later, as debate dragged on, to two minutes. Several Democrats found their microphones cut off in the middle of making a point.
"Why does the majority fear debate?" asked House Minority Leader Craig Fitz-hugh, D-Ripley. "I've never seen it since I've been here. I hope you ask yourselves that question: Why does the majority fear debate on this issue?"
The Senate already has passed a complete repeal of collective bargaining, so the bills now must be reconciled in a House-Senate conference committee before a final measure can be sent to Gov. Bill Haslam.
Democrats said they feared that Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, the Senate speaker, will carry through with his stated intention to push through total repeal of collective bargaining.
Lawmakers are scrambling to finish the session either today, over the weekend or early next week.
During debate on the teachers' union bill, House Republican Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart, of Hendersonville, the collective bargaining bill's sponsor, denied the bill was intended as an "attack on teachers."
She told colleagues it is "just not fair for the students in your county to have to deal with the burden that the union has placed on our educational system."
"It's not fair and it's not right," Maggart said. "The reason why I brought this bill was to ensure that every student in this state has the best opportunity to get a good education and also that every teacher in this state is empowered."
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville, questioned that.
"I think it is an attack on teachers. I think the teachers say it's an attack on teachers," Turner said.
Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, said proponents were "demonizing" teachers.
"They are people who have dedicated their lives to our children, your children," Brown said. "Let us think twice before we do this."
And Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, said the bill "is an effort, and we all know it, for privatization, taking over the school systems."
Proponents, she said, realize "there's plenty of money to be made there and, as a greedy society, we are looking for new revenue streams."
But Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, said while the TEA opposes the bill, another organization, the 5,000-member Professional Educators of Tennessee, backs the measure.
Republican sponsors said the House bill allows teachers to negotiate on basic wages, some benefits and insurance, but not in areas such as merit pay and differential pay for certain subjects or schools.
Republicans defeated amendments to exclude several counties from the bill.
Democrats also say the bill is part of a national effort by Republicans and their allies to destroy pubic sector unions.
Former Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, of College Grove, said Republicans are not attacking teachers. The issue, he said, is that the Tennessee Education Association has stood in the way of reforms.
"This is about political power and not wanting to change and, if we're going to change public education, we're going to have to do some things," he said.
Earlier this year, the TEA's chief lobbyist, Jerry Winters, charged that, during the 2010 elections, Casada tried to shake the association down for more political contributions to Republican campaigns and that the collective bargaining bill is his revenge for not getting his way.
Casada conceded at the time that he had pushed for more contributions but denied the bill was intended as "political payback."
But Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, one of the Republicans who voted against the bill, told colleagues, "you're very naive if you don't think this is payback politics."