Bill prohibiting union payroll deduction passes committee — with a twist

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Senator Robert Nichols
Senator Robert Nichols

Legislation that would prohibit state and local government from collecting dues for public unions passed the Texas Senate Business & Commerce Committee Sunday and now moves on for debate before the full Senate.

While the union paycheck bill has had neither the media spotlight nor the blazing debate of the “bathroom bill” during the special session, the debate over this legislation is one that has been a long grind for both sides who have argued the issue for several years.

Supporters of the bill say that the government should have no official role in collecting dues from public union paychecks since taxpayer money is used to do so. This is a common view in many other states that have passed similar legislation, such as Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.

Its opponents see political maneuvering by those pushing the legislation. Many public union members say this is yet another effort to tear down unions in a state stocked with elected leaders who are no fans of collective bargaining.

It may not be surprising that the committee vote fell along party lines, with the Republicans in favor and Democrats against — with one surprise twist.

Republican Robert Nichols of Jacksonville voted against the bill.

It’s a twist because Nichols, who is up for election in 2018, voted in favor of similar legislation during this year’s regular legislative session, as well as during the 2015 legislative session.

Nichols’ vote also comes in the wake of an overwhelming majority vote by GOP voters on the 2016 Republican Primary ballot. Republicans statewide said ‘yes’ to the tune of nearly 83-percent when answering the question, whether “Texas should prohibit governmental entities from collecting dues for labor unions through deductions from public employee paychecks.”

In two counties that Nichols represents — Nacogdoches and Cherokee — that tally was even higher, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Nichols’ legislative office declined to comment on Monday, but a spokeswoman told the Texas Monitor that if the senator made a statement on the issue, she would make that public.

The most heated part of the Sunday committee debate centered around wording in the legislation that would exempt police and fire unions from the bill, allowing state and local governments to continue to collect members’ dues for those unions.

Some supporters of the bill said the carve-out was because fire and police unions seldom use their dues for political harassment — unlike the teachers’ unions and other public unions.

Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, who is sponsoring the union bill for the special session, told the committee that the exception is only “for first responders,” a very small piece of the public union pie across Texas.

In addition, Hughes said Sunday, “It’s best to get the government out of this process. Having the government involved, collecting, remitting, doesn’t seem appropriate.”

Committee member John Whitmire, D-Houston, argued that this legislation amounted to more government involvement, not less.

Cynthia Cole, the executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Houston, testified at the hearing and said she agreed with Whitmire.

“You should have a choice to determine how you spend the money that you earn,” she said. “If you want to be a part of the Mickey Mouse Club, you should be able to have the right to do that. This bill… puts government in your face.”

Rusty Brown of Granbury also testified. He is a vice-president of several firms and supported the legislation. He argued that having the government take money from paychecks is outdated.

Indeed, having taxpayers — through a local government — pay for payroll deductions for union dues isn’t necessary because the technology exists to have union members pay union dues themselves automatically, just like you might make a credit card or automobile payment.

“So the real opposing argument is simply one of the classics of human nature: That’s how we’ve always done it, so let’s just keep doing it this way,” Brown said.

See Sunday’s full testimony here.

Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.

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Trent is an award-winning editor and reporter, who has previously worked The Denver Post, The (Nashville) Tennessean, and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Most recently, he was the investigative producer for Houston’s KTRK-TV ABC-13. He was also the editor and founder of Texas Watchdog, a ground-breaking news group that paved the way for this project. Trent is a teacher of journalism skills, and has shown hundreds of reporters and citizen-journalists how to use public records, databases and journalism tools to keep a watchful eye on their own local government.

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