TOPEKA — A labor attorney and the Kansas Senate president sparred Tuesday over whether public employees have a right to have money deducted from their paychecks for union-backed political activities.
Rebecca Proctor and Senate President Susan Wagle clashed during a Senate Commerce Committee meeting over a bill that would bar automatic, voluntary deductions from teachers’ and government workers’ paychecks to support union-backed political activities, such as campaign contributions. The measure passed the House on Thursday.
Wagle said many Kansas residents don’t agree with public unions’ or teachers’ positions on issues and the state should not be involved in channeling money to support those views. Supporters of the bill say union members often feel bullied or coerced to make the automatic contributions for fear of alienation or retribution in the workplace.
Proctor said public workers have a right to use their pay as they wish. She also said she believed the bill could go so far as to prevent unions from advocating for particular values or issues that are not partisan but are ideological, such as testifying before the Legislature on worker safety or education.
“This bill is insidious and completely silences the voice of many union members,” Proctor said.
The payroll bill is one of several proposed measures that Democrats and union representatives see as eroding the rights of public employees to participate in the political process, whether it be supporting candidates with political action committees or advocating public policy changes.
Conservative Republican legislators supporting the bill say the measure would protect teachers and public workers from peer pressure or from having their money go toward supporting views or candidates they oppose. Wagle, R-Wichita, said public employees could still write a personal check for PAC contributions or arrange for automatic bank drafts under the new law.
“We’re talking about taxpayer money and what you can do with that money,” she said.
But Proctor said the definition of political activity in the proposed bill was so broad that it would shut union employees out of the political process entirely.
Sen. Pat Apple, R-Louisburg, a member of the committee, asked for interpretation from legislative staff regarding the bill’s language and how it syncs with what the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on campaign finance laws as it relates to limiting free speech.
Similar legislation cleared the House in 2011 but died in the Senate. The bill is more likely to succeed this year with conservative Republicans who back the measure now in control of both chambers. Gov. Sam Brownback is a GOP conservative, making it likely the measure will become law later this year if it reaches his desk.
The Kansas effort follows measures in other states, such as Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan, which have passed measures to limit the collective bargaining rights of public employees and, opponents say, weaken unions.
Randy Mousley, president of United Teachers of Wichita, said local teachers “are very, very angry” about the paycheck bill and others, including one that could do away with collective bargaining.
“It’s really about silencing us, but … we’re not going to be silenced, and we won’t go away,” Mousley said Tuesday.
In Wichita at the start of each school year, union officials get about an hour during new-staff orientation to present information to new teachers about the union. They set up a table with applications and ask teachers to join, but “there’s no hard-sell pressure to that,” Mousley said.
“We ask them to join their professional organization, which is what we are. We ask them to be a member, and if they say no, we ask, ‘What are your reservations?’ ” he said. “And if they walk off, they walk off. If they’re reluctant to join, we can’t do anything about that.”
Union dues for Wichita teachers are $58.55 a month. Of that, $1.67 is a voluntary donation to the state political action committee. The majority of members opt to pay dues through payroll deduction because it’s convenient, Mousley said.
He said local teachers are calling, writing and e-mailing local legislators, urging them to oppose the current measures.
“Teachers are becoming more and more aware” and many are joining the union for the first time, Mousley said.
“We are one of the biggest if not the biggest advocate for public education, especially the funding,” he said.
“If the governor and leadership in Topeka have their way, they will push a constitutional amendment through to do away with suitable funding, and that is going to have a profound effect on every student in Wichita and across the state.”
Kansas business groups have long favored what supporters call “paycheck protection” legislation. However, even with large Republican majorities and Brownback as governor in 2011, unions still drew enough support from GOP moderates that they and Democrats could block the measure. The Senate’s moderate GOP leaders were toppled in last year’s elections.
Contributing: Suzanne Perez Tobias of The Eagle.