By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
HARRISBURG, Pa. — A united front of Democrats paired with a group of five Republicans more sympathetic to organized labor has left so-called paycheck protection legislation in a perilous spot, but the math still says the controversial bill limiting the collection of union dues can emerge from the state Senate.
For now, anyway.
Republicans hold a 30-19 advantage over Democrats in the chamber, which has been short one member since former state Sen. Mike Stack, D-Philadelphia, ascended to lieutenant governor in January. A special election to fill the open seat won’t occur until May 19, meaning Republicans need 25 votes — not the usual 26 — to pass legislation without the help of their counterparts on the left.
As long as that advantage remains, the caucus can absorb dissent from the five southeastern Pennsylvania Republicans who last month helped derail a key amendment deemed vital to pass paycheck protection. The GOP just needs every other member to show up and support the legislation the day of the vote, and it might have to happen before the upcoming election gives Democrats a chance to build their team to 20.
While the numbers seem to favor the legislation at the moment, paycheck protection has been divisive for the GOP. Some Republicans have called out colleagues who oppose the measure, which conservatives have painted as a good-government reform that would stop the state from collecting dues for public-sector unions, who in turn can use the money for some political activities.
“This is clearly a wrong thing, but there’s people that won’t go up against the public-sector unions, and that’s the bottom line,” said state Sen. John Eichelberger, the Blair County Republican who is the main sponsor of the bill and hopes to see it come up again this month.
The amendment would have watered down paycheck protection by allowing the state to collect the portion of dues that go toward the general operation of public-sector unions, and Eichelberger said it was necessary to earn the vote of a Republican on the fence. The vote ended in a tie, but one Republican senator who has supported paycheck protection measures in the past wasn’t there.
Eichelberger last month called out the five Republicans who voted against the amendment — Sens. Dominic Pileggi, John Rafferty, Tommy Tomlinson, Stewart Greenleaf and Tom McGarrigle. Eichelberger said they were the “Republicans who voted to allow government resources to be used to collect money for political purposes.”
State Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, one of the loudest advocates for paycheck protection, took the public shaming even further. He lashed out against the five senators in an email to supporters.
Wagner called Rafferty the “most disingenuous member of the Republican Caucus,” said Pileggi has been a “bitter person” since he was ousted as majority leader and accused both of trying to undermine the new GOP leadership in the Senate. He finished by vowing to elect four new more conservative senators.
None of the five Republicans spoke with PA Independent to explain their vote. Pileggi declined to comment through a spokesman, while Rafferty, Tomlinson, Greenleaf and McGarrigle never returned messages.
Eichelberger and others have their suspicions why the senators from the southeast corner of the state deviated from the rest of the Republican caucus.
“The main reasons, I think, is that folks down in those counties are more worried about union opposition than people in the rest of the state,” said James Broussard, a political science professor at Lebanon Valley College.
Unions have been more willing to support Republicans in the region largely because of matters of access, Broussard said. While the Democratic Party has made some inroads, Delaware County, for example, was once so overwhelmingly Republican that organized labor had no choice but to reach out to the GOP, Broussard said.
That created what has been an unusual “two-way dependence,” in which Republican lawmakers might fear doing anything that would make a union rethink support, or even neutrality, in a campaign, Broussard said.
“I think that’s what’s in the minds of these senators,” he said.
Campaign finance records show the connections that Broussard is referencing. The five lawmakers received $501,100 in political contributions from private and public unions in the 2013-14 campaign cycle, according to an analysis of campaign finance records conducted by the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think thank that supports paycheck protection.
PILEGGI: State Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, looks like he’s changed his mind on paycheck protection.
The brunt of that, $329,500, went to Pileggi, who wielded immense power as majority leader from 2006 until 2014. Rafferty received $104,600, Tomlinson $44,600 and Greenleaf $11,500, according to the analysis.
McGarrigle took in just $10,900 from unions, but he was running for an open seat against the business manager of the Plumbers Union Local 690, perhaps explaining the lack of big-money support from organized labor. Pileggi, though, was McGarrigle’s single-largest campaign contributor, tossing him more than $725,000.
The Commonwealth Foundation has often tried to connect public-sector unions’ political power to the state collecting their dues. While dues can’t be used to directly support candidates, it can be used to pay for campaign support, such as mailers or magazines touting a particular office-seeker.
The system gives unions an unfair advantage, said Nate Benefield, vice president of policy analysis for the think tank.
“It’s part of why it’s so hard to address the issue because they have so much clout,” Benefield said.
The fracture within the GOP shows unions might have more inroads with their argument that conservatives are simply out to bust organized labor.
In fact, Pileggi’s opposition comes after he voted in the past session for legislation that would have stopped the state from deducting political money from the paychecks of public school employees.
The flip-flop surprised Eichelberger, who doesn’t expect Pileggi or the other four southeastern Pennsylvania Republicans to flip-flop this time around to make the math any more favorable for paycheck protection.
“There’s just too much union influence,” he said.