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Analysis: Conservatives See Payroll Deduction Bill as Key on Two Fronts

A Senate bill that arrived in the House less than two weeks ago would let Republicans put the hurt on unions and on Democrats, if it can move through the legislative gauntlet this late in the legislative session.

State Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, on the House floor on May 7, 2015.

Texas is hardly a union state, but a payroll deduction bill that is stuck in the Texas House is getting attention from conservatives who think it could undermine financial support for unions — and Democrats — if it passes.

It’s a flip on the idea of money as speech: If you can cut off the money, you can hush the speakers.

Public employees in Texas are allowed to pay their dues to unions or nonunion employee organizations by having them deducted from their paychecks. Senate Bill 1968 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, would prohibit those deductions for everyone except employees in certain police, fire and emergency medical services organizations.

It’s the union version of automatic bill payments, like the ones that ping your credit card or bank account each month on behalf of the phone or cable or utility company. They have a couple of reasons for being. Automation unburdens payers and payees from processing bills, checks and whatnot every 30 days. And it takes what might be a monthly decision away from the person who would be writing checks; they’re less likely to cancel a bill they don’t have to look at every month.

It’s one reason AOL still has 2.2 million customers for its dial-up internet service. You can argue about whether dial-up is still needed, whether those customers still use the service and whether they would still be subscribers if they were making the decision to pay or not pay every month. But they’re still there.

You can make a similar argument about unions. The Texas Public Policy Foundation recommended ending automatic deductions of dues from public workers’ paychecks in a policy paper published this year.

Bill Peacock, vice president of research for TPPF, said it concluded that the dues shouldn’t be allowed for any public employees. He included deductions for charitable causes, too. “It’s not government’s role,” he said.

The foundation’s paper points to the effects of ending the dues deductions in other states that have passed laws like the one Texas is considering. After the automatic payments end, some employees “conclude the organization does not merit their financial support after all.” And it cites a letter from an Alabama teachers group about the “immediate danger” that has posed to its continued existence.

In a memo to Empower Texans’ email subscribers, the conservative group’s chief, Michael Quinn Sullivan, was direct: “SB1968 would seem to be a political no-brainer for a conservative,” he wrote. “By ending the unions’ ‘coerced dues’ practice of paycheck withholdings, GOP lawmakers could simultaneously weaken the Democrats and empower workers to better control their paychecks.”

"It’s a blow to the members,” said Becky Moeller, president of the Texas AFL-CIO. “It’s an attack on the institution of labor, but it’s an attack on the members.

“They should not be picking and choosing winners and losers, and that’s what they’re doing,” she said of the proposal’s advocates. “We like you and your advocacy, they say to some, but not unions.”

For Sullivan’s group, this is a twofer: They get to shoot at unions with the support of the legislation, and they get to shoot at their favorite adversary, House Speaker Joe Straus. Sullivan blames the bill’s current state — passed by the Senate, waiting for a House committee to act late in the session — on Straus. An earlier version rests undisturbed in a separate committee.

Actually, it’s more than a twofer: The headline on Sullivan’s blast was “Defunding Democrats.” Unions in Texas support some Republicans but are lopsided in favor of the Democrats. The logic is uncomplicated: Undermine the dues to the unions, undermine the unions, undermine the Democrats.

The Democrats are well aware they’re being stalked. All of the Senate Democrats voted against the bill when it was offered there. And on Tuesday, the Texas House Democrats blocked public testimony on SB 1968 and a number of other Senate bills.

It doesn’t kill those bills, but means they will proceed — if at all — without further public testimony (there was testimony in the Senate) on the pros and the cons. SB 1968 got to the House from the Senate less than two weeks ago and now rests in the House State Affairs Committee, chaired by Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana. He hasn’t yet scheduled the bill for consideration, but it’s still possible to move it along before the session ends.

“It would have been much better for those who are opposed to it to have a hearing,” he said, sounding a little bewildered by the Democrats’ vote. “That’s really too bad.” 

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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