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Analysis: Patrick Makes An Old Bill Come Due

Legislation that would have blocked public employees from paying union or association dues with paycheck deductions failed last session. But the Senate is reopening the issue, and it could play against a powerful House chairman up for reelection next year.

State Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, debates an amendment to SB19, an ethics bill on May 26, 2015.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has teed up a fight over union dues for the next legislative session, incidentally bringing it up as the primary season starts.

That’s probably not something state Rep. Byron Cook wanted to hear: Legislation on this subject died in the Corsicana Republican's committee earlier this year, a legislative fatality almost certain to be raised during Cook's coming primary election campaign.

Under current law, public employees in Texas can pay their dues to unions, or nonunion employee organizations, by having them deducted from their government paychecks. Conservatives pushed legislation earlier this year that would have prohibited those deductions for everyone except employees in certain police, fire and emergency medical services organizations.

Getting rid of the automatic payments would shrink the number of people sending payments to their employee groups, weakening the groups and, with them, the politicians those groups support. Republicans and others supporting the idea have been upfront about it. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin, studied the issue and found getting rid of the practice meant more public employees held onto their money instead of sending it to their unions and non-union associations.

Union officials fought the legislation, essentially making the same point from their own perspective. Becky Moeller, until earlier this year president of the Texas AFL-CIO, said it would be “a blow to the members” and would harm their ability to organize.

The affected groups tend to back Democrats, which was evident during the short battle over the bill. Senate Democrats were united against it but outnumbered. After it passed in the Senate, House Democrats blocked public testimony on it to slow things down.

The exemptions for unions representing first responders hurt, too, undermining some of the supporters’ arguments. Cook, whose House State Affairs Committee was handed the bill, said he had reservations about leaving teachers and prison guards out of the exemptions. Critics of the legislation said lawmakers were trying to pick favorites based more on political interests than on policy. In the end, Cook said the bill was beset with technical flaws and didn’t bring it up for a vote as time ran out.

In June, when the session was over, House Speaker Joe Straus said the dues bill failed because it arrived late and in bad shape from the Senate. Last-minute attempts like that one are common in the final weeks and go in both directions, he said then: “We send each other big flaming bags of junk.”

This bag is still smoldering.

Last week, Patrick brought it back for consideration as part of his list of interim charges — issues that he wants Senate committees to study in advance of the 2017 legislative session. Adding subjects to his lists (or Straus’ in the case of the Texas House) virtually ensures legislation will be filed when the time comes.

Between now and that session, the committees will do their work. And primary and general election voters will be deciding whom to send to Austin.

Cook, chairman of the committee where the dues bill died, was busy with another piece of legislation at the time — a major ethics law overhaul that would have regulated “dark money” in Texas by requiring politically active nonprofits to disclose their donors. The Senate didn’t like that idea, and neither did Gov. Greg Abbott. Cook wouldn’t agree to the bill without it, and it died.

In political terms, those two fights raised his importance as a target of conservative activists. And they are coming to get him, having enlisted fruitcake scion Thomas McNutt, whose family has run Corsicana's Collin Street Bakery for more than 100 years, to challenge Cook in the GOP primary in March.

On the road to the 2017 legislative session, that dues bill faces fewer obstacles than the incumbent. 

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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Politics State government 84th Legislative Session Byron Cook Dan Patrick Joe Straus Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature Texas Senate