House approves ban on union pay deductions

A bill barring public employee unions in Kansas from deducting money from members’ paychecks to help finance political activities cleared the Republican-dominated Legislature on Tuesday.

The House voted 68-54 in favor of the measure, and it now goes to GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, who’s expected to sign it. The Senate approved an identical version last week after supporters narrowed the bill’s scope to address concerns that the legislation violated free speech rights.

The bill’s passage was a political victory for conservative Republican legislators and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce. They failed to push it through the Legislature in 2011, despite large GOP majorities and Brownback taking office as governor, because of a split among GOP senators including some who lost their seats last year.

Supporters of the bill argue that state and local government agencies processing payrolls shouldn’t be entangled in transactions that divert money to political action committees. Supporters also contend the change will protect public employee union members from having part of their pay funneled to candidates or causes they oppose.

“It gives members of public sector unions a choice in whether they want to contribute to the political actions of these organizations,” said Eric Stafford, a Kansas Chamber lobbyist.

‘Under siege’

Opponents of the bill note that union members generally must agree to paycheck deductions beforehand. Kansas also has been a right-to-work state since the late 1950s, meaning workers must opt into unions and cannot be forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment.

“This is the Legislature trying to tell employees and employers what they can and cannot do with what is the employees’ money ultimately,” said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat. “I just don’t think we have any business inserting ourselves into something like that.”

Critics see the bill as an attempt to weaken the political influence of public employee unions by making it less convenient for them to contribute to political causes. Such unions strongly support Democrats and are vocal critics of Brownback.

Another bill pending before the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee would narrow the scope of contract negotiations between teachers’ unions and local school boards. In addition, Brownback’s administration and some GOP House members have renewed a push to mandate a 401(k)-style pension plan for new teachers and government workers, despite an overhaul last year aimed at bolstering the long-term financial health of the state retirement system.

The House vote on the paycheck bill came only hours after Heather Ousley, a Merriam mother, finished a three-day, 60-mile walk from her home to the Statehouse to protest what she sees as attacks on teachers and public education.

Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the 25,000-member Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said public employee groups are “under siege.” He said the bill singles out public employee unions for special restrictions.

“The bill is there because we disagreed with the Chamber and the governor, and we need to be silenced,” Desetti said. “Go after us, but you’re not shutting us up.”

Unions became more suspicious in January when Stafford, answering questions during a hearing by the commerce committee, snapped, “I need this bill passed so we can get rid of public sector unions.” Stafford later acknowledged he lost his cool and apologized, saying supporters of the bill have no such goal.

Also, when the House passed a version of the bill in January, it defined political activities broadly enough that critics said it could prevent unions from testifying before the Legislature about worker safety or hinder communications between a union and its members.

Rep. Marvin Kleeb, who is chairman of the commerce committee, said that was never the intent, and the Senate rewrote the bill before passing it last week. The House’s vote Tuesday was to accept the Senate’s changes.

Kleeb, an Overland Park Republican, said union members will still be able to write checks or give money individually to PACs but, “The point is to protect individual rights.”