Statehouse Live: Labor groups suffer blow in Kansas House

? The Kansas National Education Association and public employee unions on Thursday suffered a blow as the House approved a bill that both sides agreed would hurt the labor groups.

House Bill 2023 was approved, 68-56, and sent to the Senate for consideration. Only Republicans supported the measure, while all 33 Democrats and 23 Republicans voted against it.

Rep. John Wilson, D-Lawrence, voted against the bill, saying the measure was an “overtly political attack to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.”

But Rep. Reid Petty, R-Liberal, described the bill as “pro teacher.” According to Petty, “It gives teachers a right to decide where their money is spent.”

Backed by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, HB 2023 would prohibit KNEA and state and local government unions from deducting voluntary paycheck donations from members to be used for political advocacy. For example, a teacher can give the KNEA permission to deduct a portion of his or her pay that would go to the KNEA’s political action committee. The amount has been cited as less than $2 per month. Under this bill, the automatic paycheck deduction would be prohibited.

In a preliminary vote Wednesday, the measure was advanced 66-54. Democrats said they had hoped to change the outcome on the final vote, but that didn’t happen.

In the House Republican caucus before the final vote, GOP leaders urged first-term legislators to stick with them.

House Speaker Pro Tem Peggy Mast, R-Emporia, said, “We are going to try to cover your back.” She added, “It is just the beginning of a lot of tough votes.”

Several more bills are in the pipeline to restrict labor activity. Similar measures had been stopped in recent years in the Senate but the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and other conservative groups helped flip the Senate into conservative control this session.

KNEA President Karen Godfrey said, “I have been an active teacher for over 30 years and I have never seen such a deluge of offensive anti-teacher legislation as has been produced in the first 12 days of this session. Kansans are ashamed to be represented in such a vindictive manner.”

Opponents of the bill said it was designed to try to eliminate teachers and public workers from the political process by denying them the ability to have a small portion of their pay deducted for political action committees.

The KNEA issued a statement that noted the teachers in the Newtown, Conn., massacre who tried to protect their students. “We have come to expect them even to put themselves between a gunman and the children but just let them try to express a political opinion and the Kansas Legislature will shut them down,” the statement said.

But supporters of the bill said they heard that teachers were being pressured to donate their funds for political advocacy, although no teacher or public employee stepped forward during hearings on the legislation to confirm that.

The bill’s supporters also said tax funds shouldn’t be used to administer the deduction, but KNEA officials said that cost was minimal. And they said teachers could still contribute to political action committees through a personal donation.

Rep. Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park, the carrier of the bill, noted during debate that similar legislation in other states had greatly reduced membership of public employee unions.

During a committee hearing on the bill, Eric Stafford, a lobbyist for the Kansas Chamber, told legislators, “I need this bill passed so we can get rid of public sector unions.”