TOPEKA – Public unions inched closer to losing some of their political clout Wednesday when the House tentatively approved a bill banning paycheck deductions that unions use to fuel political advocacy.
Many conservative Republicans who helped the bill pass in a 66-54 vote said it is a way to protect “a silent majority” of public union members who feel pressure to channel a bit of their paycheck to union politics.
“This bill is about getting the government out of the business of collecting money on behalf of PACs,” Wichita Republican Rep. Mark Hutton said.
Critics called it an attempt to silence teachers and other government workers who voluntarily assign a small portion of their salary to union political action funds that are used to support or oppose candidates and ballot issues.
Freshman Democratic Rep. Brandon Whipple said his south Wichita district is the most unionized in all of Kansas.
He said none of the thousands of people he has talked to says they were pressured to join a union, and that police officers, firefighters and teachers don’t need the government to protect them from their decisions on how to spend their money.
“My district would be offended by the idea, or the very title, of this act, the Paycheck Protection Act,” he said.
A final vote in the House in coming days will send the bill to the Senate, where Senate President Susan Wagle says it will probably pass and head to Gov. Sam Brownback’s desk.
The bill has pitted political heavyweights against each other, with the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity backing it and Kansas National Education Association and Kansas Organization of State Employees opposing it.
It is one of several union-related bills moving through the Statehouse; others aim to limit the ability of teacher and government employee unions to collectively bargain for wages and working conditions.
Union members and some Democrats said the Kansas chamber exposed its true intent last week when one of its lobbyists got frustrated with a Democratic lawmaker’s questions during a hearing on the payroll deduction bill.
“I need this bill passed so we can get rid of public sector unions,” lobbyist Eric Stafford said. He later said he misspoke and apologized to members of a House panel.
Stafford said the chamber isn’t trying to eliminate public unions, and he said he has yet to examine the other union bills that have been introduced.
Kansans can’t be forced to join unions under a 1958 voter-approved amendment to the state constitution. But conservative Republicans say they’ve heard from union members who say they feel pressured to join the union, pay regular dues and also sign up to give additional money to political action committees.
“This isn’t just about teachers,” said Overland Park Republican Marvin Kleeb. “This is about all governmental employees who have very limited amounts of income. This gives them opportunity to avoid contributing. We’re really speaking for the silent majority here.”
Members of the Kansas National Education Association now can volunteer to pay $20 a year through paycheck deduction to the union’s political action committee.
That helped fuel about $500,000 in spending by the KNEA’s political action committee that largely benefited Democrats and moderate Republicans during last year’s elections. Meanwhile, the chamber’s PAC and other conservative groups channeled their dues and donations to help conservative Republicans win majorities in the Statehouse.
The KNEA called the payroll deduction bill an “overtly and embarrassingly political payback.”
“It will completely silence the teacher’s association,” said Mark Desetti, a lobbyist with the KNEA.
But he said it may be less aggressive than newly introduced bills that aim to limit the collective bargaining rights of unions to negotiate salaries and other working conditions.
“We’re going to see a bill a week until they destroy us completely or find out they’ve stepped too far,” he said. “I’m not sure where that line is.”