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Union Dues Spark an End-of-Session Dispute

An unexpected end-of-session skirmish over payroll deductions for union dues pits Republicans against Democrats, business against labor, and presents lawmakers with one of those votes that might be important in next year's elections.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, answers an audience question during TTEvents on April 30, 2015.

*Correction appended

A rush to pass an anti-union bill that languished in the Legislature until last week triggered an angry exchange in a committee hearing Thursday morning that might foreshadow a floor fight in the House next week.

Senate Bill 1968 would end automatic payroll deductions of dues for union and non-union public employee organizations — except for those involving certain police, fire and emergency medical workers. It split Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and promises the same in the House. And it pits business against labor groups, which have been lobbying fiercely to pass (the business groups) or kill (the labor groups) the bill.

After months of inaction, the Senate sent the legislation to the House earlier this month. Since then, it’s been moving rapidly, in part because of looming procedural deadlines at the end of the session, and also because a few conservative groups and business groups have begun actively whipping up support in an attempt to get the bill passed before the clock runs out.

Labor groups want to protect the voluntary automatic deductions from state and local government payrolls — that’s where a lot of their dues money comes from. Employees who belong to those groups can opt to have their dues deducted instead of getting billed and writing checks every month. And they are not allowed to contribute to any political funds via the automatic payments.

But Republicans contend these labor groups overwhelmingly support Democrats, and some regard anything that helps labor as a boon to their political opponents. Meanwhile, some business groups — the Texas chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) is one — argue the practice helps sustain a traditional nemesis to business.

Throw in a couple more outside groups and the mix is even more volatile. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy organization, is now promoting the legislation. Justin Keener, a spokesman, said it became a top priority for the group when the bill came out of the Senate — “once we saw it had legs.”

That wasn’t the only group that jumped. What had been a quiet push by NFIB and others quickly became a big and somewhat unexpected flashpoint. Empower Texans, a conservative group, whipped activists around the state with an email headlined “Defunding Democrats” that also tried to blame House Speaker Joe Straus and his leadership team for the bill’s slow progress.

But the House has moved quickly since receiving the bill from the Senate. The end of session leaves them little room. In order to reach the full House for consideration, the bill has to win favor Friday or Saturday from the House State Affairs Committee and then cut through the thicket of legislation facing a House deadline of midnight Tuesday.

The first attempt to speed consideration in State Affairs was blocked by Democrats earlier this week, when they didn’t allow Republicans to suspend a rule requiring more time before a hearing could be held. They lifted their objection later, setting up the Thursday hearing. But because of the dwindling time in this legislative session, the committee chairman, Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, allowed only two hours for public testimony.

That wasn’t nearly enough time to hear from each of the 207 people signed up to testify. Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, asked Cook why he was cutting things short.

Cook said the committee “could have done this yesterday,” but said some members — he didn’t say Turner’s name, but was clearly talking about him — made that impossible. Turner tried to blame the shortened public hearing on Cook, asking if Cook intended to cut off testimony and “ram this thing through” by proceeding with what he called “a charade in place of a hearing.”

Cook said Turner and others made their choice when they voted down his earlier request to speed consideration of the bill: “We could have gone all night last night. Some people didn’t want to suspend the rules.”

Cook got some support from Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Houston, who pointed out that the rules don’t require any public testimony at all: “Is it true that you could have called this meeting without taking testimony, like we have done on so many other bills?”

The committee heard from a handful of witnesses in favor and opposed to the legislation.

“The effect will be devastating to the membership of the teacher organizations in the state for many reasons,” said John Cole, retired president of the Texas AFT, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “Are these organizations good for the state of Texas or are they bad for the state of Texas? If you vote for this bill, you are effectively saying they are bad for the state of Texas.”

He went on to say the legislation would “cripple the advocacy that these organizations carry on.”

But Brian Olsen, a past officer of the union that represents the state’s prison guards — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME — testified against his former colleagues. He told the committee that AFSCME was out of step with the state, pursuing a political agenda, and that “Texas government has no business collecting for the unions.”

Olsen was particular about his disdain, however, saying some other groups ought to be allowed to continue with the automatic dues payments. “I’m not disagreeing with the teachers,” he said. “I can only speak to state employees.”

Lance Lowry, who is still with AFSCME and is a correctional officer, asked lawmakers to leave things as they are. “This unfairly targets groups not based on any rationale,” he said. Lowry said the bill would result in a system where “this group over here can keep their dues deduction and keep their voice at the Capitol. And this group can’t.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated John Cole's former employer; he is retired from the Texas AFT.

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