The bill, which passed in both houses Wednesday, is widely seen as a bombing run on the Alabama Education Association —- the state’s largest teachers union and a major contributor to political campaigns. AEA officials have said that most of the organization’s members pay their dues through payroll deductions, which teachers can request by filling out a form and filing it with the local school board.
Debate over the bill led to a number of interesting revelations —- or at least, a number of interesting claims -— about PACs and free speech in Alabama. Bama Fact Check looked into three of the best-known claims.
CLAIM: The bill is unconstitutional.
Reality: Maybe, maybe not.
Critics of the ban argued that limiting teachers' ability to donate their own money is unconstitutional.
Ultimately, only the courts can decide whether that claim is right. But recent precedent would seem to suggest that a court challenge to SB2 would face an uphill fight.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a similar case in Idaho in 2009. There, as in Alabama, a teacher’s union collected fees from teachers through payroll deductions, and the state Legislature moved to ban the practice.
Writing for the majority of the court, Chief Justice John Roberts stated that freedom of speech “does not confer an affirmative right to use government payroll mechanisms for the purpose of obtaining funds for expression.” The court ruled that in the absence of a free speech violation, the state had only to show a “rational basis” for banning the payroll deductions. In the Idaho case, the state cited an appearance of “entanglement” with political organizations as its reason for the ban.
CLAIM: Blue Cross Blue Shield — also funded through payroll deductions — has a political arm.
Reality: Yes, but the firewall between the contributions and the PAC is thicker.
Critics of SB2 have pointed out that teachers already have funds deducted from their paychecks for PEEHIP, the state’s health insurance plan. PEEHIP is administered by Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Alabama, and critics of SB2 say the group has its own lobbying arm, just like the AEA.
Federal Election Commission records show that there is, indeed, a Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Alabama PAC, headquartered in Montgomery. Funded by contributions from administrators in BC/BS, the PAC has, in the past two years, given more than $80,000 to other PACs and congressional candidates. The PAC has made contributions to members of both parties -— including $10,000 to former Democratic U.S. Rep. Bobby Bright of Montgomery and $10,000 to Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Anniston. But the overall flavor of the contributions is conservative, with donations to a group titled Every Republican is Crucial and a group called Defend America PAC, which has given to a number of GOP candidates.
BC/BS vice president Koko Mackin claims there are “no similarities” between the Blue Cross PAC and the one run by AEA.
“Blue Cross’ PAC is totally funded by voluntary Blue Cross employee payroll contributions, and it supports only candidates for federal office,” Mackin said via e-mail.
It’s true that, even though the PAC bears the company’s name — and calls to the PAC are forwarded to one of the company’s vice presidents — every single contribution on record has come from a company employee, and not the company itself.
Mackin also said that employees’ contributions to PEEHIP go directly to the state, which pays BC/BS to administer the insurance plan as a “third-party administrator.”
CLAIM: Gov. Bob Riley ran a PAC from the governor’s mansion.
Reality: Not necessarily.
Proponents of the payroll deduction ban hung their argument on the notion that it's wrong to use public resources to obtain contributions for a political group. AEA members argued that the cost of enrolling teachers in the payroll deduction was virtually nil, but proponents of the bill said any use of public resources for this purpose was too much. Opponents of SB2 countered by alleging that Gov. Bob Riley runs his own PAC —- and runs it from the governor’s mansion, effectively using public property to solicit political donations.
According to records from the Alabama Secretary of State’s office, one Robert Renfroe Riley is listed as the chairman of the aptly-named GOV PAC, which lists its mission as “to elect qualified candidates dedicated to moving Alabama forward.” Riley lists his address as 1142 South Perry St. in Montgomery —- the governor’s mansion.
But that’s the chair’s residence, not the headquarters of the PAC. The official address of GOV PAC is a post office box in Birmingham. Obviously, you can’t hold a meeting in a post office box, so Bama Fact Check contacted Riley’s office to find out where the PAC’s business is conducted.
“My understanding is that the checks come to the post office box, and the treasurer takes them home and does the work there,” said Jeff Emerson, Riley’s spokesman.
The PAC’s paperwork lists someone named Kay Nimm as the treasurer. Nimm’s address is listed as a post office box in Chelsea. Efforts to reach Nimm, at the number listed in the PAC’s papers, were unsuccessful.