Alabama Republicans are back from the legislative wilderness after 136 years, and now it’s time for Dems to finally get their comeuppance—or is it simply ethics and campaign finance reform? Soon Republican Governor Bob Riley will likely sign into law several pieces of ethics reform legislation that his Republican-controlled legislature passed in last week’s special session. Senate Bill 2 amends Section 17-17-5 of Alabama Code to proscribe state employees from contributing to a political action committee or paying membership dues to any organization that uses any portion of its dues for political activity by payroll deduction or other payment.
To the chagrin of Alabama Democrats, SB 2 would disproportionately hurt public employee organizations and the Alabama Education Association, Alabama’s largest and most influential teacher’s union. According to figures from Bloomberg News, payroll deductions are a primary means for over 90 percent of Alabama teachers who wish to pay dues and support the AEA’s PAC. In the 2010 elections, AEA members’ contributions in excess of $8.6 million catapulted the teacher’s lobbying group as the state’s top spender. While SB 2 would still permit state employees to continue to use payroll deduction for any portion of membership dues not used for political activity, its certainly erects a new hurdle for AEA’s political fundraising efforts. Any Alabama Democrat mulling over a legal challenge would be wise to read the Supreme Court tealeaves by examining their decision in Ysursa v. Pocatello Education Association. In Ysursa, SCOTUS reversed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals by upholding Idaho legislation similar to that of SB 2 that prohibited state payroll deductions for political activities.
While acknowledging the constitutional implications of the restriction, the Court ultimately recognized no affirmative right for groups to use state payroll deductions to sustain political speech or expression. In further justifying their decision, Chief Justice Roberts wrote “. . . Idaho is under no obligation to aid the unions in their political activities. And the State’s decision not to do so is not an abridgement of the unions’ speech; they are free to engage in such speech as they see fit. They simply are barred from enlisting the State in support of that endeavor.”
Furthermore, the Court cited Idaho’s interest in avoiding any appearance of combining government business and political activity. Pointing to precedent that upheld speech limitations to “avoi[d] the appearance of political favoritism,” and cases that found public confidence in government is susceptible to undermining through perception of political partiality, C.J. Roberts asserted “banning payroll deductions for political speech . . . furthers the government’s interest in distinguishing between internal governmental operations and private speech.”
Given Ysursa, any challenge by SB 2 opponents will likely be answered that the AEA has no affirmative right to gain access to potential political donors through government payroll operations. AEA donors may now easily write a personal check and even request payroll deductions for membership dues that will not go towards political activity. Questions of political motivations aside, it appears that the AEA and other Alabama organizations like it must recalibrate their operations in the face of increasing Republican capital and an ominous parallel decision from the Roberts Court.
Gregory Proseus is a second-year student at William & Mary Law School.