NASHVILLE -- A bicycle helmet bill rolled through the state Senate Monday with an amendment that ditches all talk of students and helmets and instead bars Tennessee school systems from deducting dues for the Tennessee Education Association from teachers' paychecks.
Senators approved the bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, on a 21-9 vote.
"All this does is put everyone on an equal playing field," Gardenhire told colleagues, never mentioning the TEA, the state's largest teachers' union.
Gardenhire's Fair Access to Collection of Teacher Support Act would bar employee dues checkoffs 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."
The TEA, which represents thousands of K-12 educators, has operated a political action committee for decades. The automatic checkoff for the TEA dues are voluntary for the union's members.
Another provision of Gardenhire's bill bars the paycheck deductions in districts which engage in "collaborative conferencing," the voluntary system Republican lawmakers established in law back in 2011 when they abolished Tennessee's decades-old collective bargaining bill.
About half of Tennessee's 142 school districts engage in collaborative conferencing, and a TEA official said 95 percent of those are represented by the group.
TEA officials charge Gardenhire's bill is aimed at specifically at the group.
Gardenhire maintained during debate it was not. He said teachers can continue to pay dues directly to the TEA or any other organization through personal check, credit or debit card. Moreover, Gardenhire said, smaller school systems have computer systems with limited "slots" for deductions.
And, the senator said, that unfairly treats other groups like the Professional Educators of Tennessee, a TEA rival which doesn't operate a political action committee.
The bill originally urged the Department of Education to include information in a pilot bicycle safety program about "the proper use and positioning of bicycle helmets." But Gardenhire placed an amendment on it last week in committee that completely rewrote the bill to address the dues checkoff.
Three of Gardenhire's fellow Republicans voiced concerned about the bill and asked Gardenhire to delay passage so they could have time to speak with their local school district.
Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, who has six school systems in his Senate district, said, "My only concern is it appears to me we're targeting one organization."
If teachers choose to have their contributions go to TEA, they should be allowed to do so.
"I'm not targeting a specific organization," insisted Gardenhire, who noted Professional Educators of Tennessee is "not allowed to have their dues [collected] in certain counties."
"I'd rather go ahead and get this voted on," Gardenhire told Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, who also requested a delay, noting he has nine school systems in his Senate district to consult.
Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, also requested a delay.
They and four other Republicans voted against the bill. Yes votes included Sen. Bo Watson, R-Chattanooga, Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma.
After the vote, Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro of Nashville called it a "terrible bill that targets teachers. This was a lot better bill when it was about bicycle helmets."
Gardenhire's bill, which now goes to the House, is backed by national conservative groups, including the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity-Tennessee.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org, 615-255-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.
Updated Jan. 25 at 10:30 p.m.