After an acrimonious two-hour debate, state House Speaker Beth Harwell cast the deciding vote Wednesday to save legislation to curb collective bargaining rights for public school teachers.
The House Finance Committee voted 13-12 for its compromise version of the bill, sending it to the House floor for a final vote as early as next week. But Republican leaders refused to give assurances they won’t switch to the hard-line Senate bill later.
Harwell made a rare appearance at the meeting to vote. It was the second time this session she has been forced to vote to keep the bill alive. Under House rules, the speaker is permitted to vote on any committee at any time but normally doesn’t even attend the meetings.
“I made a commitment to the members of the Republican caucus that they would have an opportunity to vote on this on the House floor,” Harwell told reporters. “In order for them to do that, this bill had to come out of committee today.”
Three Republicans joined the committee’s Democrats in voting against the bill. Another Republican — Rep. Jim Coley, a school teacher from Bartlett — abstained because he said it’s a conflict of interest that he belongs to his teachers’ union.
Asked later whether he would have voted no, which would have killed the bill, Coley said, “In my heart that’s what I wanted to do.”
The House bill continues to allow contract negotiations over base pay and benefits, but repeals bargaining for merit and incentive pay plans and for teacher assignments, among other matters. The Senate already has approved its own version of the bill, repealing collective bargaining outright.
Democrats and some Republicans on the House committee said they worry that the bill’s proponents are playing a political trick and planning to change to the Senate version on the House floor, where it may have enough support to pass.
They harangued the bill’s sponsor — Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville — for assurances that she would stick to the House bill, but she repeatedly refused to predict what might happen.
“I’m not a prophet,” she said.
House Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh scoffed: “I don’t see a turnip truck around here, and I didn’t just fall off one. … What we’re going to do is pass the Senate bill.”
Harwell said she would vote for either version.
“Ultimately, my hope and I think our goal is to reach a compromise and something that we can all feel comfortable with and feel like we’ve moved our state forward in education reform and done the right thing for both teachers and students,” she said.
As he has done throughout this session, the Tennessee Education Association’s Jerry Winters excoriated the bill’s supporters as anti-teacher and warned there would be political repercussions.
“The teachers across the state, they are ticked off at this legislature,” he said. “They think this legislature has wasted a lot of time during this session trying to solve a problem that does not exist. You can count on one hand the places in this state where there are problems with negotiations.
“We now face a situation where you are doing this just because you can do it. It has nothing whatsoever to do with changes in education. If you want to attack the TEA — and some obviously do — you can do that. I’m thick-skinned. I’ve been down here a long time. I just hope not a single one of you goes home and tries to convince the teachers in your district that you’ve done something for education. That’s not going to fly with them. It’s not going to fly with the general public. They’re not stupid.”