Kansas union lobbyist to fight ban from House gallery

TOPEKA | Kansas House Speaker Mike O'Neal said Friday that a union lobbyist has been banned from the chamber's gallery for the rest of the legislative session for helping to lead a demonstration there during a vote last week on a bill strongly opposed by labor organizations.

O'Neal also said Bruce Tunnell, a Kansas AFL-CIO lobbyist, will be barred from the speaker's and majority leader's offices behind the House chamber. The Legislature's annual session is expected to last into May.

Tunnell promised to challenge the action through "legal channels," without being more specific. He said he's consulting with an attorney and will abide by O'Neal's ban until he can get it overturned.

"The working men and women of this state cannot, and will not, be silenced," he said.

Dozens of union members came to the Statehouse last week to protest a bill to prohibit labor organizations from automatically deducting money from members' paychecks to finance unions' political activities. As the House was taking final action on the bill, union members in the gallery shouted at members to vote against it; doorkeepers and Capitol Police officers ordered them to leave and escorted them out. The bill passed.

O'Neal said Tunnell is being punished because video recordings of the incident confirmed that he actively participated in an organized disruption of the House's session. The speaker also cited a Wichita Eagle report in which Tunnell was quoted as telling union members to keep quiet until the bill came up and then, "Do whatever you want."

"There must be a consequence to that," O'Neal, a Hutchinson Republican and supporter of the legislators, told reporters during a weekly question-and-answer session. "Otherwise, we will suffer disruptive behavior in the future."

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat who opposed the paycheck deduction bill, said he's troubled by O'Neal's action.

"We have to be careful about banning people from the gallery or the Capitol," Davis said. "If there's any place where we need to protect people's rights to free speech and political participation, it needs to be in this building."

Tunnell acknowledged that he was probably "out of order" during the demonstration.

"But I couldn't sit idly by because in the end it will be the working people of this state who will feel his anti-worker wrath," Tunnell said, referring to O'Neal. "Silencing this one voice will only fuel the voices of the masses."

The House's rules don't specifically ban demonstrations in the gallery but do give the speaker the duty to preserve order. If spectators spontaneously boo, cheer or applaud an action or speech, the speaker or presiding lawmaker usually warns them it's forbidden. An organized demonstration in the gallery is rare in Kansas — as is banning someone from the gallery.

"We have, obviously, doormen up there who are watching that and who had actually warned them ahead of time not to be disruptive," O'Neal said. "Their requests were not only ignored but refused by the individuals in the gallery."

O'Neal said he moved against Tunnell because, as a lobbyist, he knows more than members of the general public about the expected standards of behavior.

The paycheck deduction bill has inspired strong feelings because many union leaders see it as part of a larger, national campaign against unions by big business and Republicans.

Supporters of the bill contend it will prevent union members from being forced to help finance political activities or candidates they don't support. But critics say union members can opt out of paycheck deductions up front and contend the bill is aimed at making it harder for unions to raise money and crippling their political influence.