The Utah House approved a measure last week that labor groups say would make it harder for them to raise money for their political activities, a move that teachers’ union leaders contend is retribution for a statewide teacher strike last fall.
Lawmakers in the Republican-dominated lower chamber voted 42-33 on Jan. 30 in favor of the bill, which would prohibit the deduction of money for political contributions from the paychecks of public employees. Many public-employee unions—including teachers’ groups—collect money for their political action committees through such automatic payroll deductions.
“There’s a problem with the current system, and that is that government should not be collecting political contributions for PACs,” said Rep. Chad E. Bennion, the Republican who sponsored the bill.
But teachers’ union officials say the real motive is to chip away at their political war chest. When similar so-called “paycheck protection” measures have passed in other states, the immediate result has been a substantial decline in the number of union members giving to their organizations’ PACs. (“Political Initiative,” Jan. 21, 1998.)
“What it has to do with is that these individuals in the legislature want to make it more difficult for teachers to be politically active,” said Mark Mickelsen, a spokesman for the Utah Education Association. “Clearly, they have identified a class of employees and said, ‘We want to penalize them.’”
Part of the reason UEA officials say they’re being penalized is that the organization staged a statewide, one-day walkout in December to demand more funding for Utah schools. At the time, a state task force on school funding had just released a series of proposed budget increases that the National Education Association affiliate said fell far short of meeting the needs of the state’s rapidly growing student population.
“It was like the UEA was flexing its muscles, and they did so at the expense of children,” said Paul T. Mero, the president of the Sutherland Institute, a policy group in the state that supports the bill. “I think that upset a few lawmakers, and that worked against the union.”
Court Battle Likely
But Rep. Bennion maintains that the timing of the bill had nothing to do with the strike. He points out that similar measures have been introduced in previous legislative sessions in Utah, but they didn’t garner enough support because, he says, the authors failed to clarify certain technicalities.
His bill, Mr. Bennion said, aims to address such issues by, for example, stating that automatic payroll deductions for union membership fees would still be allowed.
Expecting that the measure will pass the GOP- controlled Senate as well and be signed by Republican Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, the UEA says it will probably take its fight to the courts. By restricting the way it raises political funds, union officials argue, the measure would violate the free-speech rights of union members.
Such legal battles have had mixed results. In 1998, a state judge in Nevada struck down a paycheck-protection ballot initiative that would have forced labor groups to get annual permission from each member before having money for political purposes deducted from his or her paychecks.
But less than a year later, a state judge in Idaho upheld a similar measure that had been challenged by the Idaho Education Association.
“More than likely, there will be a legal challenge here,” Mr. Bennion said. “But I think the piece of legislation we have, with the way it was researched and crafted, will be upheld.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Utah Eyes Ban on Payroll Deductions For Political Giving