In a long-sought triumph for Howard County's teachers union, the county's state legislators endorsed a bill to allow the union to negotiate the collection of mandatory fees from about 900 school employees who are not union members.
The legislators also backed bills to extend workers' compensation to on-duty auxiliary police volunteers and to bolster the county's enforcement of zoning violations.
The vote on the teachers-union bill appears to be a result of November's election of state Sen. James N. Robey, a Democrat, who replaced Republican Sandra B. Schrader. Robey provided the pivotal vote among the county's three state senators on a bill that has repeatedly died since it was first sought in 2001. Robey and Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, also a Democrat, voted for the bill, while Republican Sen. Allan H. Kittleman voted against it. Among the eight delegates, the vote was 6-2 for approval, again along party lines with Democrats in the majority.
"Today is the first time we've seen the effect of the election," Kittleman said after the meeting. Robey, a co-sponsor of the bill, said he voted based on the issue, not for political reasons.
The union has sought permission to seek the fees, which would be lower than regular union dues, because leaders contend they represent all employees - members and nonmembers alike. It is not fair that a minority of workers pay no dues but receive the same benefits, union officials and their Democratic supporters say.
Republicans argue that it is unfair to force nonmembers to contribute to the union.
If approved by the General Assembly, the measure would give the Howard County Education Association a way to boost its finances, though Republican legislators warned it could push some veteran teachers to retire.
Union officials were jubilant.
"I think this is a great achievement," said Ann DeLacy, the union president who attended the delegation meeting Wednesday morning in Annapolis.
She noted that the legislators defeated three limiting amendments that Kittleman offered and passed the bill as it was introduced by five Democratic sponsors. She said she wondered if the vote reflects a more positive attitude toward labor unions.
The union represents about 5,500 school board employees, of whom about 4,600 are dues-paying members. DeLacy said teachers pay $526 a year in dues on average. If the bill gets General Assembly approval, it would give the union the ability to negotiate a fee to be paid by people who are not members, but who are represented by the union in contract negotiations and enforcement and in grievance actions.
DeLacy said the extra money could be used in several ways, including more professional development support to help teachers advance their careers, for hiring staff members and perhaps for expanding union office space.
The first amendment proposed by Kittleman would have allowed the union to ignore nonmembers, allowing them to negotiate their own employment contracts with the county and represent themselves with the board.
"It just means they're free agents," he said.
Democrats and DeLacy said it would create an administrative nightmare and is unworkable. Roger Plunkett, the school system's lobbyist at the meeting, said Kittleman's idea "would put an undue burden on the school system."
A second amendment would have limited the union's representation of nonmembers to contract negotiations, meaning a lower fee for nonmembers. Those amendments and a third that would have applied the fees only to people hired after July 1, 2008, also failed, all on party-line votes.
"The entire point behind this bill is fairness and equity," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat and a co-sponsor. "The teachers I know I find almost universally to be dedicated and are people who want to work with our kids. I don't fear any exodus of teachers."
"People should have choices," said Del. Gail H. Bates, a Republican who favored the amendments and voted against the bill.
The Republicans did win approval for their proposed bill to extend medical insurance protection to volunteer auxiliary police officers. But they lost an attempt to amend a bill that would give the County Council the power to pass legislation strengthening zoning enforcement.
The Republicans wanted to eliminate from the bill the county's ability to obtain a property lien for cleanup costs for a violation without going before a judge. Republican Del. Warren E. Miller said he fears the potential for "overzealous" enforcement by county bureaucrats.
But Del. Guy Guzzone, a Democrat and former county councilman, said: "I've seen communities wait for years to get things done. I have enough faith it won't be overzealously used."
Kittleman said he is leery of liens.
"Putting a lien on a property is a big, big thing," he said. "Let them impose fines or fees," and lien power can be added later if needed.
Bobo said the bill is not taking power away from people. "I see this bill as giving power to the people" who have endured neighbors with violations, she said.