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AEA eying possible lawsuit over paycheck deduction bill

The state’s largest teachers union is mulling a lawsuit against a new state law it says unfairly restricts the way it can use union dues to communicate with members about political issues.

Arizona Education Association President Andrew Morrill said the union may sue to stop SB1365, which prohibits unions from using automatic paycheck deductions from members for political purposes. The bill exempts unions for firefighters, police officers and other public safety employees.

Morrill said the bill is intended to make political activities prohibitively difficult for unions. And the exemption, he said, is blatant case of lawmakers attacking unions they dislike – including his – while protecting the ones they support.

“There continues to be this really disturbing attack on public sector employees,” he said. “There certainly does seem to be some discrimination of political viewpoint.”

The original version of the legislation applied to all unions, but Sen. Frank Antenori, the bill’s sponsor, amended it on the Senate floor to exclude public safety employees.

Antenori , R-Tucson, said he thinks the bill should be applied to all unions. The amendment, he said, was added to prevent opposition from public safety employees.

The senator said he’s willing to come back in 2012 and amend the law to include police and fire unions.

“I guess the best thing to do is just say it across the board, just make it even for everybody,” Antenori said.

Morrill, whose union is a bastion of support for beleaguered Arizona Democrats, called the bill a “voice suppression piece” aimed at weakening public employee unions. The bill requires unions get annual permission from members if their dues or other automatic deductions are to be used for political purposes, and to get new authorization if the money used for political purposes exceeds a predetermined dollar amount or percentage.

“It’s about making a system basically untenable and impossible for unions,” he said.

Antenori said the bill doesn’t prevent unions from using dues or other money for political purposes, as long as it gets permission from the employees. Antenori said he must give his employer, defense contractor Raytheon, a similar authorization every year to take money from his paycheck for the company’s PAC.

The problem, he said, is that unions like the AEA are using money for political activities that not all of its members agree with. Antenori said some members join their unions for benefits such as legal representation, insurance and collective bargaining, even though they oppose the unions’ political activities.

“You have members of the groups in question that oppose the leadership,” he said. “They ask for the separation and a clear delineation between the dues and political activities.”

Antenori accused the AEA of using dues money for political activities, such as a 2010 rally in Tucson that promoted Democratic candidates. Morrill said the AEA doesn’t use its dues for such political activities, and said it uses its PAC and other segregated funds for campaign activities.

In an April 19 letter to Gov. Jan Brewer, Morrill urged the governor to veto SB1365, which he said was unconstitutional prior restraint against unions’ freedom of speech and completely unnecessary in a right-to-work state like Arizona. He also argued that the public safety exemption showed that lawmakers were singling out and discriminating against speech they disagree with.

Some proponents of “paycheck protection” bills like this one opposed SB1365 on similar grounds. Farrell Quinlan, a lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business, said his organization supported SCR1028, a proposed “paycheck protection” ballot measure that was similar to Antenori’s bill, but included public safety employees and corporate political action committees.

Although the NFIB was technically neutral on this particular bill, Quinlan wrote a letter to House members warning it probably could not withstand a legal challenge. In his letter, Quinlan said the NFIB believes the courts will strike down the new law because it violates the equal protection provisions in both the U.S. and Arizona constitutions.

“The carve-out for (public safety unions) could be fatal,” Quinlan said.

While Antenori said he is willing to amend the law next session, Quinlan said it may not be necessary because the legislation included a severability clause, so even if a judge strikes down the public safety exemption, the law can go into effect without it.

Public safety groups are worried about that possibility. John Ortolano, president of the Arizona Fraternal Order of Police, said his union would work to get the law amended or repealed in 2012 if a court ruling applied the new restrictions to the Arizona FOP.

“Because of the way the wording of the bill is, I would think virtually any labor group in the state” would be affected if the courts struck down the exemption, Ortolano said.

Antenori said he didn’t think the public safety unions had enough support to kill the bill, but they would have swayed enough lawmakers to prevent SB1365 from passing with the two-thirds votes it needed to enact its emergency clause and go into effect immediately.

But the emergency was stripped after Rep. Steve Urie, R-Gilbert, voted against the bill. Urie, a freshman lawmaker from Gilbert and former town councilman, said he would have voted for the bill if he hadn’t promised a constituent that he would oppose it if it didn’t include all unions, including public safety unions. The law will go into effect July 20.

Supporters and opponents of the bill even disagree on what it will actually do. Morrill argued that it would prevent the AEA from using dues money for internal communications with members about political issues affecting education. He also said it would require the AEA to determine at the start of each year how much it would spend on political activities. If the union deviated from that for any reason, it would face a $10,000 fine.

For example, Morrill said the AEA mobilized its members in 2010 to support Proposition 100, Brewer’s proposed one-cent sales tax increase. Even though the communications were only among members and not part of a campaign, Morrill said the new law would ban such activities. Ortolano said he believes the law would have put similar restrictions on the FOP, as well.

Antenori said internal communications, even if advocating for an issue or a candidate, would still be permitted under the law. However, the legislation did not specifically state that internal communications with members don’t constitute “political activities.”

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