TALLAHASSEE — Faced with certain defeat of his antiunion bill, a powerful Senate leader backed off his proposal to ban unions from collecting dues through payroll deduction Friday and offered up an alternative to keep the measure alive.
Under the amendment by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, public employee unions could continue to have their dues automatically deducted from their paychecks but would be barred from using the money "directly or indirectly for the purposes of any political activity."
Banned activities would include contributions to candidates, political parties and committees, tax-exempt organizations and electioneering. If unions want to use their dues for political purposes, they would have to get written permission each year from each union member. Unions could continue to collect money to pay for education, training, legal defense, charitable causes and other nonpolitical activities.
The amendment, proposed after the bill barely made it through the Senate Budget Committee on Wednesday, was needed "to ensure that we're clear about what the intent of the original bill was," Thrasher said.
The Senate Rules Committee approved the amended bill, 8-4, sending the measure to a full vote of the Senate. Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, became the eighth Republican senator to publicly oppose it as teachers, firefighters and police unions members blasted the idea as a false fix.
"To say that unions are the only ones to use dues for political purposes is a little bit disingenuous," said Gary Rainey, president of the Florida Professional Firefighters. Hundreds of private corporations in Florida use payroll deductions to collect money for political activity, he said, and targeting public employee unions "is patently unfair."
Thrasher needs three more Republicans to get the measure out of the Senate and back to the House, which has already approved his original version. So on Thursday, Thrasher, the former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, called in the party's top brass.
State party chairman Dave Bitner and the party's executive committee took the extraordinary step of sending a letter to all Republican senators, citing "union power and the obstruction of the American legislative system" in Wisconsin, and urging them to support the bill.
Meanwhile, the unions produced a spreadsheet of 48 insurance companies and credit unions that use payroll deduction to collect dues and make more than $10 million in campaign contributions.
Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican who opposed the original bill, switched her vote to get the bill out of committee. But, she added, the measure "doesn't address all the concerns I have."
Marianne Moran, representing Tea Party in Action from West Palm Beach, spoke in favor of the bill on behalf of "the hard-earned money" of union members, whom she said could "face retribution" for opposing the use of their dues for political purposes.
But Henry Kelley of the Fort Walton Beach Tea Party sent a letter to senators urging them to reject the bill.
"What does this bill have to do with the Tea Party principles of limited government?" he wrote, noting the state allows 360 other organizations to use payroll deduction from public employee paychecks. "I joined up with the tea party over fiscal conservative issues. Like it or not, unions, and any other group, have a right to lobby."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at email@example.com.