TALLAHASSEE — As Democrats blasted the Republican-led Legislature for abusing their political muscle and silencing the voice of the working class Friday, the Florida House voted 73-40 to ban the electronic withdrawal of union dues from state and local government paychecks.
The bill passed along party lines as three House Republicans crossed over to vote with Democrats. Proponents defended the measure in a testy exchange, arguing that a change to the 32-year-old law was needed to ensure smaller government.
The measure has not come to a full Senate vote but, if it passes there, Gov. Rick Scott said Friday he is likely to sign it into law.
In addition to halting payroll deduction for all public sector workers, firefighters, police and other union members, the measure requires unions to obtain written permission from members each year to have dues spent on political activity and it requires unions to supply a detailed written account of its political contributions.
"The concept of government getting involved in the collection of union dues when union dues are used for partisan political purposes is contrary to the very notion of limited government," said Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, the bill sponsor.
But Democrats called it an assault on free speech, and an attempt to fatally wound the Democratic Party.
"What's the real reason for this bill?" asked House Democratic Leader Rep. Ron Saunders of Key West. "Two words: political payback. We all realize that unions generally support Democrats."
According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, labor unions contributed a total of $13.8 million to Florida political campaigns in the 2010 election cycle, $10.2 million to Democrats, $1 million to Republicans and the rest to third-party candidates or campaigns for ballot measures.
Saunders thanked Dorworth for "kicking the sleeping bear" and suggested that union voters will remember the slight.
Dorworth acknowledged the payroll deduction was designed to only target unions, as there is no move to end the practice of automatic payroll deductions for the United Way, the Florida State University booster club, or the more than 300 other organizations that use it for government workers.
That prompted Democrats to label the bill the "Worker Gag Bill," while Republicans labeled it the "Payroll Protection Act."
Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, suggested it was "the first shot in the 2012 election" but warned that the vote could come back to haunt them.
"With a super-majority in both houses, the entire Cabinet, the governorship and an ample fundraising advantage, what are you all afraid of?" asked Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Niceville, countered that it is the unions that are afraid. "It's very evident the unions' bosses don't like the notion that they have to give up some of their power," he said.
Three Republicans, each of whom received significant union support to get elected, voted against the measure: Reps. Ana Rivas Logan of Miami-Dade, Mike Weinstein of Jacksonville and Ed Hooper of Clearwater, a retired fire lieutenant.
A member of the Clearwater firefighters union for 24 years, Hooper said proponents' arguments were misplaced and disingenuous. Rivas Logan, a freshman legislator and school administrator in Miami-Dade County, did not want to say why she voted against the bill. "I'd rather not comment on my no vote," she told the Times/Herald.
The bill first emerged in the Senate where Sen. John Thrasher, the former state Republican Party chairman, was targeted for defeat last year by a Democratic candidate who was heavily backed by the teachers unions.
In supporting the bill, Gov. Scott said he thought state dollars should not be used to collect union dues. "I don't believe that's how the state ought to be spending their money."
A House staff analysis shows, however, the cost "is negligible." In many cases, government agencies collect the dues at the beginning of the month, remit it to the unions at the end of the month, and keep the interest.
Doug Martin, communications director for American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 79, said many union lawyers believe the bill is an unconstitutional violation of free speech. If it becomes law, it will probably draw a lawsuit patterned after a successful lawsuit that challenged a similar Alabama law, he said.
"We'll sue. We'll get an injunction," Martin said. "Government doesn't get to choose speech."
Times/Herald staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.