Politics & Government

Teacher group’s dues deduction again under fire

The N.C. Association of Educators has refused to tell the state Auditor’s Office how many members it has, an action that has reignited an effort by lawmakers to end the association’s ability to collect dues through payroll deductions.

A state law passed last year required NCAE to have at least 40,000 members to qualify for payroll deductions from state employees. The law calls on the state auditor to verify the membership count every year.

The provision was in the “technical corrections” bill that passed near the end of the 2014 legislative session and was mixed in with changes to dozens of unrelated laws.

An auditor’s report on employee group memberships released Friday said NCAE would not tell how many members it has and that the association, which represents teachers and other school employees, denied repeated requests for the information.

“We do not have the authority to compel NCAE to turn over this information because, as a private entity, NCAE does not fall under the authority of the State Auditor,” said the report, signed by Auditor Beth Wood. “However, NCAE reported a total membership count of approximately 70,000 on their website as of October 27, 2015. We were not able to confirm this membership count.”

Additionally, the audit report said the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Federation of Teachers did not respond to requests for membership information.

NCAE would not say why it would not reveal the size of its membership.

About 9,400 NCAE members use the payroll deduction, according to the state auditor’s report.

“We have nothing to add to what is in the Auditor’s report,” NCAE spokesman Tim Crowley said in an email Friday.

NCAE has been linked for years to Democrats. Some Republicans and conservative political groups have tried over the last few years to weaken the organization, and the efforts have made for a long-running political drama.

The legislature passed a law in 2011 barring NCAE from receiving direct payroll deductions of members’ dues. Democrats protested, saying the law was retaliatory.

That year, NCAE sent mailers into the districts of five House Democrats who were siding with Republicans on the state budget. In a closed-door meeting of House Republicans, then-House Speaker Thom Tillis said the House was going to vote on the dues bill as payback.

“The reason we’re doing it is because the NCAE has gone into all five districts with mailers hammering these Democrats,” Tillis said at the time. “It’s just a little taste of what’s to come.” He made his remarks in what House Republicans thought to be a private setting, but they were broadcast through the audio system in the Legislative Building and into the press room.

Then-Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed the dues bill. House Republicans responded with an unscheduled, post-midnight session and overrode the veto.

NCAE sued and began encouraging its members to pay in other ways. A Wake County judge ruled the law was unconstitutional.

Last year, the conservative group Civitas launched a campaign to get NCAE members to quit the organization.

A new angle

The audit report appears to have offered critics of the dues deduction a new angle to push for its end.

Sen. Ralph Hise, a vocal opponent of the dues deduction, said in a letter to state Controller Linda Morrison Combs this month that some organizations may not qualify for the payroll deduction. He said those groups that did not give the auditor their membership information are violating the law.

The law also singles out NCAE, which is the only group in the law that must have at least 40,000 total members to qualify for dues collections through payroll deductions.

For about a dozen other groups, such as the State Employees Association of North Carolina, the threshold is 2,000 members. In the audit report, SEANC is reported to have 52,900 members – and 32,033 were using the payroll deduction to pay dues.

The Correctional Peace Officers Foundation, the N.C. Association of Teacher Assistants and the School Bus Drivers Association have fewer than 2,000 members, according to the report.

Hise, a Spruce Pine Republican, asked Combs to stop taking the deductions until the auditor completes the membership verifications.

“I can see no alternative to ensure that the State Auditor has access to the data she requires to see to it that the law is followed,” he wrote.

The Controller’s Office said in a statement that it received the auditor’s report late Friday. “We are going to review the report and will take appropriate action as dictated by law,” the statement said.

Sherri Johnson, spokeswoman for the Controller’s Office, said that office is responsible for few teacher paychecks. Most are issued by local school districts.

Hise could not be reached for comment Friday.

But Sen. Andy Wells, a Hickory Republican, said there’s no reason why the state should be involved in collecting dues when there are many ways for members to direct money to employee organizations.

“I’m not an attorney, but it appears we have a law in place that requires a minimum threshold,” Wells said. “If an organization is not willing to share that data, I’m not sure how they comply with the minimum.”

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner