Todd Gardenhire

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Read Gardenhire’s original bicyle helmet bill:

Read his amendment targeting the Tennessee Education Association:

Read legislative fiscal analyists’ take on the amendment:

NASHVILLE — 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.

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."

The bill applies to any local education agency (LEA) that has adopted "collaborative conferencing." That 2011 law replaced a decades-old collective bargaining statute. The former law allowed teachers to join and be exclusively represented by an employee organization in contract negotiations with school boards.

Under collaborative conferencing, multiple professional groups can discuss issues with local school officials. But there are limits on what can be discussed, school boards have the final decision and there is no mediation or arbitration.

The TEA charged in 2011 that the bill was political payback for the organization's backing of Democratic candidates. Republicans had just gained their first real working majorities in both the House and Senate since Reconstruction.

Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, questioned the bill.

"I don't know what the obsession is about meddling in the private affairs of Tennesseans," Harris said. "I mean, those are private associations. I think we need to stop sticking our nose in the business of private associations."

When Gardenhire's bill came up in committee last week, he said he could explain his reasoning by reading the bill's preamble, with its "whereas" clauses. While those clauses don't actually appear in statutes, they often provide a sponsor's justification.

The bill says "the policy of Tennessee shall be to respect the free speech rights of all citizens." But it notes that since the 2011 passage of the Collaborative Conference Act, "each teacher has a complete freedom of choice to choose whether to join a professional association."

It says "some professional associations choose to directly and indirectly support partisan political and electioneering activity with the assistance of member dues" with local government assistance through automatic dues checkoffs.

That comes "at a significant cost to taxpayers," Gardenhire's bill says. And it asserts "not all local education agencies have granted equal access to payroll deduction for all professional associations" which the bill says creates "inequity in access to prefer one professional association over another."

"The effect of this preference is that Tennessee taxpayers are currently subsidizing the direct and indirect partisan political activity of one professional association, while denying that same access to another," the amendment says.

A legislative fiscal note fails to support Gardenhire's assertion that the bill is costly to taxpayers. The analyst said having fewer deductions to employee paychecks "will not significantly reduce local expenditures." It also noted any savings would accrue to local education agencies, not the state.

The TEA's political action committee has long been a top contributor in legislative races.

In 2014, TEA's PAC was the top direct donor to state candidates' campaigns, contributing $183,900 of an estimated $10.19 million by all PACs, according to the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.

However, traditional PAC contributions are increasingly being elbowed out by "super PACs" and their independent expenditures.

For example, in terms of combined independent expenditures and actual campaign contributions in 2014, Tennessee's No. 2 PAC was the Tennessee Federation for Children. It spent $422,197, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported last year.

The PAC supports school vouchers.

In years past, TEA's political contributions favored Democrats, who controlled both House and Senate. But that began changing when Republicans took over.

Contact Andy Sher at, 615-255-0550 or follow @AndySher1 on Twitter.