Alabama Republicans shift power from AEA

Published 8:02 pm Wednesday, December 15, 2010

MONTGOMERY (AP) — Republicans who took control of the Alabama Legislature for the first time in 136 years have moved swiftly to undercut the Alabama Education Association, a political powerhouse for educators and one of Alabama’s largest sources of campaign contributions, mostly for Democrats the past four decades.

The second bill passed by the new Legislature ends state paycheck deductions for membership dues and campaign contributions for employee groups to engage in political activity. Payroll deduction could still be used for the portion of dues that don’t go for political activity.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh of Anniston said the bill’s passage Wednesday signals the end to decades of AEA being able to get almost anything it wants from the Legislature.

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“There has been a power shift in Montgomery. The vote shows Republicans do not want any organization to have an exceptional amount of power over the Legislature,” Marsh said.

But AEA’s executive secretary, Paul Hubbert, said the measure is retaliation by Republicans who are trying to silence groups representing public employees. He said similar legislation that passed in other states has resulted in a decline in membership dues because writing a monthly check is not as convenient as payroll deduction.

Hubbert, a vice chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party until recently, has run the teachers’ organization for 41 years and helped make it one of the most influential units of the National Education Association. More than 90 percent of Alabama’s teachers use payroll deductions to pay dues and, in most cases, to contribute to AEA’s political action committee.

Contributions from AEA’s 105,000 members helped make it the biggest spending lobbying group in the 2010 elections, with donations of more than $8.6 million. Much of that went to Democrats, but more than $1 million helped elect Republican Robert Bentley as governor. Bentley was not the first choice of most of the GOP power structure, including the outgoing governor. Republicans won about 60 percent of the legislative races Nov. 2, and the new lawmakers took office last month. Republican Gov. Bob Riley, who leaves office Jan. 17, used the opportunity to work with the new GOP majority to call a special session to pass a package of ethics and campaign finance bills that he couldn’t get passed under Democrat control.

“When Republicans won big in November, AEA was going to have to pay a price, and they paid a big one with this one. Nothing beats automatic checkoff,” said William Stewart, the retired chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama.

The payroll deduction bill cleared the House 52-49 and the Senate 22-12 Wednesday. It now goes to the governor, who plans to review it to make sure there are no loopholes that would allow AEA to engage in politics indirectly by sending money to intermediary groups.

The bill would still allow AEA and other organizations representing public employees to continue to use payroll deduction for the portion of its dues that don’t go for political activity, such as representing employees in disciplinary hearings and lobbying the Legislature. But dues for political activity, including AEA’s well-known polling operation, and contributions to its political action committees can no longer be deducted from paychecks.

Members would have to write a check or sign up for a bank draft to fund political activities.

Alabama teachers only have to look to the South Carolina Education Association to gauge the potential impact.

Acting Executive Director Roger Smith said the South Carolina Legislature passed a similar law in 1984 “to weaken the association” and membership has dropped from 20,000 then to 6,000 now.

No one expects AEA to quit being a force in Alabama politics. But even its biggest allies expect an impact.

“It’s gotcha politics in the guise of ethics reform,” the Senate’s Democratic minority leader, Roger Bedford of Russellville, said.

AEA and other employee groups are planning a legal challenge, but Republicans point out that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a similar law from Idaho last year.

“This is a seminal moment in history,” Republican Sen. Trip Pittman of Daphne said.