Pennsylvania’s Progress on Paycheck Protection in Question

State Rep. Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) informed the media at a Capitol press conference yesterday he is uncertain when his paycheck protection legislation will advance in the House because more work needs to be done to the bill’s wording. The event left those in attendance skeptical as to whether the reform has any future at all.

Harrisburg had been atwitter of late with speculation that the Republican-dominated General Assembly would be making a serious near-term effort to pass the reform, which Cutler first introduced in the previous legislative session nearly four years ago. The buzz was so strong that last week it caused every major Democratic gubernatorial candidate to issue a statement expressing fervent opposition to paycheck protection. Even with a characteristically tepid statement that he would sign it into law should it reach his desk, Gov. Tom Corbett fueled the anticipation surrounding the bill.

The measure, House Bill 1507, would end public-sector unions’ powerful advantage of being the only organizations in the Commonwealth to have the government collect their members’ dues, fees, and political contributions for them through automatic payroll deduction.  The bill exempts police, corrections officers, firefighters, and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel. Cutler said the state police have reservations about the legislation regarding their ability to continue paying union fair share fees through payroll deduction.

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) said HB 1507 would be amended by the House State Government Committee, which he chairs, before proceeding to a vote of the full House. The committee won’t be meeting for another week at the soonest, and neither House Speaker Sam Smith (R-Jefferson) nor House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) have been in contact with Metcalfe. A spokesman for Smith and Turzai failed to return calls from Media Trackers seeking comment.

House Majority Whip Stan Saylor (R-York) was the only member of the Republican leadership team from either chamber of the legislature to attend the press conference, which was perhaps a strong signal the bill isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  Saylor did not speak and left the press conference early.

John Eichelberger, who has introduced legislation mirroring Cutler’s, was the only senator to attend.

Cutler’s remarks were defensive in nature and suggested that proponents have a good bit of unfinished public relations groundwork in front of them before HB 1507 can proceed. He stressed that his legislation has no impact whatsoever on the collective bargaining or free speech rights of public-sector employees.  Unions could still solicit unlimited campaign contributions from their members, and the ability of workers to organize, negotiate and be politically active would be unaffected. “My bill only asks that they collect dues and political money directly from their own members, and not by paycheck deduction,” he said. “I believe it’s time we answer the question I’ve always had:  should government be in the business of collecting political money?”

Eichelberger likened the use of taxpayer resources for the collection of unions’ political money to the Bonusgate scandal that rocked Harrisburg in 2007. “There are people who used to work in this building who are in prison for conducting political activity with taxpayers resources,” he said. Eichelberger believes Republicans are a handful of votes short in both the House and the Senate, and he remains optimistic that paycheck protection will ultimately be enacted.  Although Senate leaders don’t have a timeline for his bill, they have been working with him and have devoted a significant portion of Republican caucus meetings to discussion of paycheck protection.

State Rep. Eli Evankovic (R-Westmoreland) echoed Eichelberger’s sentiments. “Pennsylvanians have had to bear the embarrassment of politics being paid for with taxpayer money,” he said. “It’s a clear matter of right and wrong.”

Lehigh County Commissioner Scott Ott, who was among a small contingent of local government officials on hand to endorse HB 1507, challenged Corbett to move beyond a passive position. Ott knows a little something about assertiveness in the public policy arena; he spearheaded the passage of a paycheck protection resolution by his colleagues on the Lehigh County board of commissioners. Pressed as to the significance of Corbett’s passivity, Cutler responded, “I have more work to do.”  Indeed he does. When asked how strong the governor’s support for paycheck protection is, spokesman Jay Pagni said, “Gov. Corbett does not believe the public sector should bear the burden collecting and providing payments for unions.” Given the Democrat Party’s prospects for reclaiming the governor’s mansion in light of Corbett’s horrendous polling numbers, the hourglass might be nearly out of sand.