TALLAHASSEE — A Senate committee Wednesday barely passed a bill to weaken the political power of Florida's public employee unions as Republican Party leaders continued the pressure on a handful of moderate Republican senators who could stand in the way of final passage.
Gov. Rick Scott has spent the week dining with lawmakers who hold pivotal votes. Republican Party of Florida officials have told legislators that passing the bill is their top session priority. And the governor has enlisted the support of his sympathetic tea party groups.
The goal is to put into law a bill that would ban public employee unions from collecting dues through payroll deductions and require unions to obtain permission from members each year to use their dues for political activity. Unions fear the provisions add a layer of complexity that will discourage people from joining their ranks. Backers say it is simply a question of legislators pursuing a conservative goal of less government.
"The simple issue of this bill is the state ought not be in the collection business for political organizations," said Sen. John Thrasher of St. Augustine, the former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
He sponsored the bill after his re-election was vigorously opposed by his local teachers union.
But for those lawmakers on the hot seat, the measure "is a distraction," said Sen. Nancy Detert, a Venice Republican. "We're doing five years of work in 60 days. We're reforming everything … and yet this bill will get all kinds of heat and upset people for nothing."
On Monday, Detert had breakfast with the governor, who urged her to support the bill. But Detert, an 11-year veteran of the Legislature, said she told him "this has more to do with politics than it has to do with policy."
"Republicans say that the unions use all their dues money against us, and I say, 'Well, if that's what they do, they haven't been very successful,' " she said.
With only 10 Democrats in the Senate, and Sen. Larcenia Bullard absent because of illness, Detert joked: "If they all went to Georgia, we'd still have a quorum."
Scott also appealed to other Republicans. Sen. Steve Oelrich, a Gainesville Republican, had breakfast with Scott on Monday, but remains undecided.
"I haven't made up my mind," he said.
Sen. Jim Norman, a Tampa Republican, said he is still opposed to the bill.
"It's not my money," Norman said of the union dues. "It's the employees' money, and I believe they have a right to do with it as they want."
Sen. Greg Evers, a Crestview Republican, met with Scott last week on the issue and remains opposed.
"This is an issue that's going to heat up before it goes away," he said.
Meanwhile, Scott has enlisted Tea Party in Action, the political group he supported and worked closely with during his campaign, to put pressure on Evers.
"Paycheck protection is not supported by Senator Greg Evers. Why not?" wrote Geoff Ross, a retiree in Evers' district. "It's time to make some calls, my patriots across the Panhandle."
During debate Wednesday in the Senate Budget Committee, Marianne Moran, director of the Boca Raton-based Tea Party in Action, told the panel the group "fully supports and will promote SB 830 and encourages you to do the same."
Thrasher concedes that the issue is important to Scott, who has been eager to court a national audience by moving the antiunion agenda in Florida.
"If it's important to the governor, it's important to the RPOF," he said.
But the 11-9 committee vote is a sign the bill is in trouble. Senate President Mike Haridopolos used a rules maneuver to send Majority Leader Andy Gardiner to the committee to vote on the bill and break a potential tie that might have occurred had Sen. Evelyn Lynn been present.
It was the second narrow victory for Thrasher, who won approval for the bill from a previous committee by a 4-3 vote. The bill now moves to the Senate Rules Committee, which Thrasher chairs.
The Senate vote came after a three-hour debate that was at times raucous and boisterous as union members from across the state traveled to Tallahassee to voice their opposition. The House version has already passed that chamber 73-40 but the vote is much closer in the Senate.
Three Republicans joined with Democrats to oppose the measure: Sens. Anitere Flores of Miami, Thad Altman of Melbourne and Mike Fasano of New Port Richey.
"If we get it to the floor, we will have the votes to pass it," Thrasher said.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.