HARRISBURG -- Public sector unions would be crippled if a bill limiting their ability to collect dues and political contributions from members gains traction in the state Legislature, labor groups say.
The bill was introduced in the House several months ago, and, while no hearings or votes have been scheduled, it has been the subject of increased lobbying and chatter in the Capitol, to the alarm of labor groups.
A separate bill awaits action in the Senate, though that version hasn't moved out of committee, either.
The proposal would bar state and municipal governments from deducting union dues or political contributions from the paychecks of most public employees -- though the dues of prison guards, police officers and firefighters are excluded from the bill, according to a legislative memo seeking House co-sponsors.
Union leaders say they see the bill as part of a broader, national assault on collective bargaining and labor rights, such as "right to work" legislation passed in Wisconsin and Michigan in the past several years.
"This isn't coming from any disgruntled employees or employers. This is outside money coming into Pennsylvania politics," said Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.
Advocates for the bills say that some of the money that governments deduct from union members' paychecks ends up being used for political purposes.
"Where does the money ultimately end up?" asked Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, the House bill's sponsor.
Dues deduction -- directly from a union member's paycheck to the union -- is not automatic under the law, but is negotiated between unions and management. Such deductions are considered a standard part of most labor contracts.
In Pennsylvania, union dues money cannot be given to candidates in the form of direct financial contributions, though it can be spent on political purposes, such as lobbying or mailings discussing a candidate's voting record.
Members can opt to give additional funds to political activities through a political action committee, and these funds can be contributed directly to candidates.
And union members who object to political activities can limit their dues deductions to a so-called "fair share" fee, which does not include any political activity and is strictly limited to day-to-day union activities like contract bargaining and filing grievances.
Mr. Cutler's memo seeking co-sponsors for the bill says that "since some of this [dues] money is used for political purposes, we do not believe that the public employers, funded by tax dollars, should be in the business of collecting these fees for representative unions. Our legislation [requires] that the representative union collect these fees directly for their members."
One of the most vocal advocates for the bill has been the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank.
"[Union] PAC contributions are being collected in the Capitol. PAC contributions are being collected in our school districts," said Matthew Brouillette, the group's president and CEO. But other political groups can't have the state or a local government directly deduct funds from workers' paychecks, he said.
The bill is strongly opposed by a slew of unions, among them the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents more than 180,000 teachers and school employees.
"Public payroll systems are highly automated and already equipped to process various deductions such as Social Security and Medicare," according to a memo circulated by PSEA. "The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania currently facilitates hundreds of different deductions from employee paychecks, including various charitable contributions."
It's not clear if the proposal will move forward, though it seems to have the support of House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods.
"I know that many people raise a concern, particularly after Bonusgate ... . Why would state and local government be in the business of collecting political contributions?" Mr. Turzai said Wednesday while speaking to Capitol reporters.
"My understanding also is the bills in no way eliminate the relationship of the employee and the union. ... It's just that you would not use the government as an intermediary to collect those dues. ... And I think [supporters of the bill] make a compelling case."
But more moderate Senate Republicans seem cooler toward the bill. There is no plan to move the bill at this point, said Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware.
Jay Pagni, a spokesman for Gov. Tom Corbett, said it is too early to say whether the Republican governor would sign such a bill if it reached his desk.
Several Democratic gubernatorial candidates have put out statements against the proposal.
Terry Madonna, a pollster and longtime Pennsylvania political observer, said that while the Legislature is not always predictable, he doesn't see this issue advancing in the near future.
"There is no way, in my humble judgement, even if the House were to pass it, the Senate would take this up in this environment," said Mr. Madonna, a professor at Franklin and Marshall College. "I just don't think they're going to go there" and pick a huge fight with labor in an election year.
Post-Gazette staff writer Karen Langley contributed. Kate Giammarise: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-4254. Twitter: @KateGiammarise.