school bus stock

A battle is shaping up on whether the state should allow local school boards to charge teachers unions and others to collect membership dues.

The measure, House Bill 671, won approval last week without objection in the House Education Committee.

But that absence of objections in the committee was misleading, and the proposal is expected to spark arguments in the full House on Monday. "I am sure it is going to face huge opposition," said House Education Committee Chairwoman Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette.

The bill's backers include the powerful Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. Opposing it are the Louisiana Association of Educators, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, the Louisiana Association of Principals and Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Notably, the Louisiana School Boards Association has no position on the bill.

Under current rules, local school boards routinely deduct from paychecks for teachers union dues, United Way contributions and other purposes, then forward the money to the organizations.

Landry's bill would allow boards to charge an administrative fee of up to 3 percent of the dues withheld.

She contends the current practice runs afoul of the state Constitution.

"They should pay something," Landry said of the groups. "It should not be offered free."

Opponents contend the lawmaker is unfairly singling out teachers.

If the bill becomes law, teachers unions would simply pass on the new fee to teachers, said Shane Riddle, legislative and political director for the LAE.

"At a time when teacher salaries are below the (regional average), I don't think it is a good idea to impose a fee on them," Riddle said.

Debra Schum, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Principals, made the same point. "Teachers and school employees need any kind of perk that we can get them," Schum said. "It will make it more difficult for them if they have to pay a fee."

The dispute is similar to one that erupted in 2015.

In that case, state Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette, sponsored a bill that would have banned the automatic deduction of dues for teachers and other public union members. That plan, like this one, pitted business interests on one side against teachers unions on the other.

Bishop's bill won approval in a House committee but later died.

Brigitte Nieland, who follows public school issues for LABI, said even United Way officials have said that administrative fees are common for groups that contribute to the charity.

"Up to 3 percent seems like a very reasonable amount to be charged," Nieland said.

Cynthia Posey, legislative and political director for the LFT, disputed Landry's view that the current practice for deducting membership dues goes against the constitution. Posey said no court rulings have reached that conclusion.

She said that, in the St. Tammany Parish School District, employees are allowed to have car payments deducted from their paychecks.

Mary-Patricia Wray, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Public Pension Coalition, said using Landry's argument means deductions for state retirement systems, the Office of Group Benefits and credit unions would also be unconstitutional.

"Withholdings for these other types of employee benefits, many of which have political implications, aren't under attack," Wray wrote in an email response to questions.

Landry said her bill would not affect other employee benefits.

Landry is often at odds with teachers unions and other traditional public school groups. She is among lawmakers who usually back efforts to overhaul school operations, and those efforts are usually opposed by teachers unions and others.

At this stage, the fate of any highly charged bill is hampered by the calendar. The regular session has to end by June 4, and it may finish sooner so the Legislature can start another special session to tackle state budget problems.

Even if the measure wins House approval — it needs 53 votes in the 105-member House — it may well be sent to what backers view as a hostile committee in the Senate.

"It is a good debate to have and we need to have it, start talking about this," Landry said. "Because I do think what we have been doing is unconstitutional and we should look for a way to either make it constitutional or stop doing it." 

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.