Florida Senate deals blow to teachers unions

The Florida Senate on Friday narrowly defeated an effort to eliminate part of a major education bill that could force teachers’ unions to disband if they don’t meet new membership standards.

In a 21-17 vote, the Senate rejected a proposed amendment by Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, that would have removed the controversial provision from the bill (HB 7055). The provision could cause teachers’ unions to lose their state certification if their membership falls below 50 percent of the employees they represent in the collective-bargaining process. If decertified, a union would have to reorganize and seek another majority vote from the members they are seeking to represent.

»RELATED: The latest in Florida political news

Thurston said the provision was singling out teachers among all unions and that there is already a decertification process in state law that would allow teachers to disband a union if they were unhappy with the representation.

“It’s not right that we say teachers are the only ones we are going to punish,” Thurston said.

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, defended the provision saying it would create a process where teachers could decide whether to continue with unions, which represent all teachers in negotiating with local school boards over issues like salaries and classroom conditions.

“Workers should decide what’s best for workers,” Passidomo said, saying the new process would “ensure that teachers do have the representation of their choice.”

The amendment failed on a largely party-line vote after the 15-member Senate Democratic caucus united to support Thurston’s amendment. Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, and Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, were the only Republicans who voted with the Democrats for the proposal.

“At a time when everybody is talking about arming teachers, they want to muzzle them as well,” Kevin Watson, a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association, the largest teachers’ union, told the Democratic caucus at a luncheon before the vote.

After Thurston’s amendment failed, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, offered an amendment that would have reduced the union membership requirement to 40 percent.

Although it was not a substantial change, Lee, a former Senate president, said his amendment would “send a message” to House leaders. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, is a major proponent of the education bill, which would create three new voucher programs, including one that would allow bullied students to attend private schools.

“This is just punitive. This is just mean-spirited what we’re doing,” Lee said about the union decertification provision.

While noting he has been an ally of Corcoran and that the education bill was “linchpin” in negotiations with the House, Lee said he “didn’t come to Tallahassee to be told what to do.”

“I’m sorry that I’m throwing water on a transaction here or something,” Lee said. “But I really feel strongly that we have overstepped here.”

Lee’s amendment failed in a 19-19 vote, although three other Republicans — Young, Sen. Greg Steube of Sarasota and Rene Garcia of Hialeah — joined Lee and the Democrats in supporting the proposal.

The education bill, which is scheduled for a Senate floor vote on Monday, includes creation of the “hope scholarship” program, which would provide public funding to students who are bullied or suffer other abuses, allowing them to transfer to private schools.

The scholarships would be funded by Florida motorists, who would voluntarily agree to contribute up to $105 to the program when buying or registering vehicles. The donation would act as a credit against the sales tax they would normally pay in vehicle transactions.

Another new program, which Senate Democrats said had never been considered in a committee, would allow credits on sales taxes paid on commercial leases to fund Gardiner scholarships, which are used by disabled students, and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides aid to low-income students.

A third new program would create scholarship accounts to allow low-performing readers in third through fifth grades to obtain services, like tutors.

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