TOPEKA – The Kansas Senate approved legislation Thursday prohibiting public employee unions from deducting money from members’ paychecks to help finance political activities over objections that the bill targets traditional Democratic supporters.
The vote was 24-16 and sends the bill back to the House to consider changes made by the Republican-led Senate. The House approved the measure earlier in the legislative session, but senators removed language that raised concerns about limiting free speech rights of union members.
“I think the Legislature has crossed the line when we have a bill like this on the floor,” said Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City. “I’m flabbergasted. Just because you can technically do this doesn’t make it right.”
Kansas is a right-to-work state, which means workers must opt into unions and can’t be forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment. Workers may also agree to have money automatically deducted from their paychecks for a political action committee connected to the union, which then distributes the money to political causes and candidates as it sees fit.
Proponents argued the measure would protect members of public employee unions from having part of their pay funneled to candidates or causes they oppose. Supporters also said state and local government agencies processing payrolls shouldn’t be entangled in such transactions.
“We are withdrawing the government from any activities involved in these payroll deductions,” said Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which rewrote the House bill.
Public unions have argued that the bill is an attempt to weaken their political power by making it less convenient to make contributions for political purposes. Democrats argued Thursday that Republicans were using their large majorities in the Legislature to attack unions that traditionally have supported Democratic candidates.
“That is flat out wrong. That is tyranny,” Holland said.
But Sen. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park, a schoolteacher, said the bill was about giving public employees a choice and removing any pressure they may feel from peers to contribute to a PAC, even if they don’t agree with the PAC’s ideology. Smith said he wasn’t a member of the Kansas National Education Association, one of the unions that would be affected by the legislation.
Several bills have been introduced this session that attempt to curb the rights of public employee unions, including narrowing the collective bargaining rights of teachers to negotiate with school districts.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat and teacher, said the paycheck deduction bill would make it difficult, if not impossible, for public union members to participate in the political process. He the contract between the Department of Administration and the Kansas Organization of State Employees stipulated that the group would repay the state for the cost of handling the PAC deduction, roughly 6 cents per transaction.
“PACs are groups of little people. PACs are the power of the people,” Hensley said.
Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe, said public employee union members could set up an automatic bank withdrawal for PAC contributions, similar to the way utility bills or other expenses are handled by individuals and families.