JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) Some Midwestern Republicans are trying to curb the power of organized labor, but have been careful in their quest to avoid upsetting some key political constituencies police and firefighters.
Missouri’s Republican-controlled Legislature wants to join the ranks of states in passing laws to limit the ability of unions to collect and spend fees paid by workers. But lawmakers are moving cautiously to avoid angering those employees who work to ensure public safety.
“The potential message of being anti-police and anti-firefighter in a campaign is a third rail,” said George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University. “You don’t want to give that to your opponent. You don’t want to perceived as that, ever.”
Missouri’s legislation is pending in the Senate with one week left before lawmakers must adjourn for the year. It passed the House previously, but opposition from Senate Democrats leaves the bill’s fate uncertain.
The measure would require public employees to give annual written consent for money to be automatically deducted from their paychecks. Similar authorization would be needed for unions to spend fees on political activities.
But police officers, firefighters, nurses and other emergency personnel wouldn’t need to provide consent should the bill become law. Unions representing those workers could continue to automatically deduct money from their paychecks and spend it on political functions as they see fit. Under current practice, workers can ask for a rebate if they don’t like how the union spends their fees.
Wisconsin and Michigan took a similar approach in passing limitations on unions and collective bargaining during the past few years.
Police and firefighters were not included in the 2011 Wisconsin law that barred other public sector unions from collectively bargaining over anything other than base wage increases no greater than inflation. And they were left out when Michigan became the 24th state to adopt a right-to-work policy in 2012 that prohibits requiring the payment of union fees as a condition of employment.
The exclusions have raised questions among Democrats about the motivations behind the legislation.
“This is a purely political bill simply to go after groups that don’t support their political agenda,” said Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence.
Supporters deny the motivation is political gain, but acknowledge the exemption for emergency responders is necessary to get enough votes to pass the measure. When asked by Democrats about the origin of the exemption, they pointed to similar versions of the bill in prior years.
“It was always felt that first responders should be carved out,” said Sen. Dan Brown, R-Rolla, the Senate sponsor. “They are putting their life on the line.”
Connor said excluding emergency responders undermines supporters’ arguments that the legislation is sound public policy. But he added that the exclusion reflects a reality that lawmakers must compromise in order to pass legislation.
Brown said it is unlikely the legislation could pass without the exemption. The exemption could have made the difference in the House this year, where it passed by a narrow margin. The GOP-led House voted 83-69 in favor of the bill, only one vote above the minimum threshold required for the chamber to pass legislation.
Other states haven’t needed to exempt police, firefighter and other first responder labor organizations to enact restrictions on union spending. Last year, Kansas barred all public employee unions from deducting money from members’ paychecks to help finance political activities.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed similar legislation last year. In his veto letter, he cited the exemption and said it provides “disparate treatment for similarly situated people without a compelling government interest.”
To bypass another likely veto, this year’s bill would head to the August primary ballot instead of his desk, if passed by the Legislature.
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