Paycheck protection poised for debate

HARRISBURG – Paycheck protection could sit poised for debate on the Senate floor in the coming week as a second piece of legislation that would curtail payroll deductions of union dues moved out of the Senate State Government Committee on Thursday.

Now, speculation brews over Senate Bill 1034 and its negotiating power as lawmakers continue to contemplate what revenue generators will complete the 2014-15 budget and how the governor’s pension ultimatum will affect those decisions – if at all.

“There’s lots of give and take going on,” said Nathan A. Benefield, vice president of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank based in Harrisburg. “There’s a lot of members who really want to see this. It (paycheck protection) could be used to get members to go along with some of the other things in the budget.”

The bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, offered an amendment Thursday that would limit payroll deductions to fair share union dues only – meaning members would have to pay out of pocket for political activity funds.

Pennsylvania State Education Association’s members classified as active full-time classroom teachers, for example, would only see $363.54 in fair share dues deducted from their paycheck, while the remaining $134.46 in dues would be an optional, separate payment made via personal check.

Eichelberger told reporters after Thursday’s committee meeting the amendment appeases union complaints about inconvenience while eliminating the core GOP concern that payroll deductions use state resources to collect money for political activity.

“Well, we’ve heard both sides to the arguments for months now and their argument is that we are trying to go after the unions and curtail them from collecting their dues and it will be reflected in their membership and so on,” he said. “This should not be a problem for them. Their dues will continue to be collected as they are today through payroll deduction. It shouldn’t be any impact on their membership and our goal as we’ve stated many times is to make sure from an ethical standpoint that we’re going through our system cleaning up the process.”

Wythe Keever, PSEA spokesman, balked at the notion of compromise and doubled down on the union’s opposition to the bill, saying everything about it – including its timing just days before the state budget comes due – is “suspect.”

“Sen. Eichelberger’s statements and claims notwithstanding, this version of the legislation is not acceptable to PSEA and our members,” he said. “Proponents of this legislation continue to mislead about ‘state resources’ being used for payroll deduction, when in fact payroll deduction exists in virtually every workplace, public and private, for things like health care insurance, United Way and retirement plans because it is efficient, and costs the employer virtually zero dollars. And the proponents are apparently unconcerned that big banks and health insurance companies are involved in political activities, yet continue to collect funds via payroll deduction.”

Eichelberger said it’s not up to his legislation to differentiate between unions and nonprofit organizations that collect money via payroll deductions because a Supreme Court ruling on Super PACs already did so.

“The unions are treated differently,” he said. “The SuperPAC decision incorporated what unions can do. The IRS has reflected that. There’s a distinction in the law. There isn’t anything that’s new. That’s just an argument to confuse the issue.”

He said state Democrats aren’t blind to the ethical dilemma union due payroll deductions create, either.

“If I had a large contributor that I thought was doing something that was unethical or illegal, I would be in a compromised situation to try to remedy that situation,” he said. “As a state legislator, that would put me in a tough position where I would have to come out against somebody that was a sugar daddy for myself or the Republican party that’s the position they are in. I think they all recognize this isn’t right. Whether they are willing to step up and acknowledge that and say, look fair is fair, we appreciate the money but we are not going to be able to support you continuing to do this.”

The committee approved the amendment and the bill on an identical vote of 7-4. It is expected to be referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee for a fiscal note before potentially moving on to the Senate floor.