PA Moves to Ban Government Union Political Funding

Senate bill would separate political from representational funding

Pennsylvania Capitol / AP

The Pennsylvania state Senate passed a bill that would ban the government transfer of public sector worker dues to political organizations on Wednesday.

The Senate voted 26-23 to pass SB 501 after a short debate. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Eichelberger (R.) said the vote was a victory for individuals over political interests.

"This is what the majority of union members want and what the public deserves," Eichelberger said in a release. "It protects members from being forced through the union to fund political candidates or causes they don’t support."

The bill became known as Mary’s Law, named after Pennsylvania College of Technology professor Mary Trometter who filed suit to stop her local union from directly financing political causes with which she disagreed. Tormetter complained to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in November after receiving a Pennsylvania State Education Association mailer implying that all teachers supported Democratic candidate Tom Wolf.

"As a family member of an educator, you know they are devoting their career to helping others … Please join Mary in voting for Tom Wolf for Governor on November 4th," the letter said.

Wolf beat Republican Gov. Tom Corbett by 10 points.

The case drew attention from lawmakers because the government automatically deducts union dues from its workers’ paychecks; some of those funds are eventually used for political advocacy. Union PACs spent nearly $8.5 million in 2014, while the six largest public sector unions reported about $7 million in "political activities and lobbying" expenditures, according to an analysis from the Commonwealth Foundation, a pro-market think tank.

Mary’s Law draws a clearer distinction between money used for representational activities, such as grievance procedures and collective bargaining and political activities. Workers will still have the ability to volunteer dues to political causes, but the government will no longer automatically deduct that portion of the funds.

"Paycheck protection ensures public resources will not be used for politics. Government union leaders should not be able to fund their political agendas on the backs of taxpayers," foundation vice president of policy analysisNathan Benefield said in an email to the Washington Free Beacon. "This legislation empowers teachers and state workers, giving them a greater voice in their union and control over their own dues dollars."

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R.) said in a statement that the legislation will promote transparency and avoid the appearance of corruption since the government will no longer have a role in distributing campaign-related money.

"It is crucial that electoral politics and official government business have clear separation and that taxpayer resources are in no way used for campaign purposes," Scarnati said in a release.

While the Senate vote broke down along party lines, with three Republicans joining Democrats, the bill enjoys broad public support. A September poll from the foundation found that 75 percent of Republicans, 59 percent of Democrats, and 69 percent of Independents support the concept of removing the government from the process.

House Majority Whip Rep. Bryan Cutler (R.) has sponsored similar legislation in the House for years. He told the Free Beacon that the issue first drew his attention when a local teacher complained that she was being forced to sponsor political speech that didn’t represent her beliefs. He said that Wednesday’s vote would help drive the issue in the house.

"It’s necessary because there has to be a clear line between government assets and political money," he said in a phone interview. "The issue and the idea really sell themselves. I expect a robust debate and look forward to educating my colleagues and the public."

The House will begin debate on the Senate bill, as well as Cutler’s version, when it reconvenes on Monday.