TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida House delivered a major blow to public employee unions Friday, approving a bill that would ban automatic dues deduction from a government paycheck and require members to sign off on the use of their dues for political purposes.
Democrats and Republicans fought over the legislation for just under two hours. Democrats and labor unions have accused conservatives of "union-busting" and said the bill was more about political payback than public policy. Unions have typically been big backers of Democratic candidates.
Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, the House sponsor of the legislation, said this was simply the state's movement to get out of the dues deduction business and let the unions take care of it.
"It's a bill that empowers membership of labor unions," Dorworth said.
The measure, HB 1021, passed by a 73-40 vote, with three Republican lawmakers siding with the Democrats.
Democrats argued that Republicans are simply trying to take out their political opponents.
"It's about silencing the opposition. That's not democratic," said Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach.
During the last general election cycle, the statewide teachers' union gave more than $3.4 million in campaign contributions, mostly to Democrats. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees doled out nearly $1.4 million, much of it directly to the state Democratic Party. And the AFL-CIO and other labor groups gave hundreds of thousands of dollars more.
For the past few weeks, labor groups have been actively campaigning against the bill and testifying against it in legislative committee meetings, but the Republican majority was largely united in pushing the bill through the House.
"This bill aims to do nothing more than silencing dissent," said Florida Education Association President Andy Ford. "The lawmakers who voted for this bill have signaled their desire to use the power of government to single out and attack the hardworking men and women who serve Florida in public employment."
The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, has one more committee stop before it makes it to the floor.
Republicans have denied Democrats' accusations that the bill is a political attack, saying the legislation was designed to get government out of the political process since it would no longer be collecting dues for organizations that sometimes do political work. And people who decide they don't want their dues used for political purposes can say no, Republican lawmakers argued.
"If you want your money --your money-- you get to keep it," said Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami.