TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A plan to restrict political fundraising by public unions advanced Wednesday in the Kansas Legislature after a contentious debate between supporters who say it would protect a "silent majority" of workers and opponents who call it a veiled effort to further erode labor's clout in the deeply conservative state.
The measure, which won first-round approval in the House by a 66-54 unrecorded vote, would prohibit groups that represent teachers and government workers from automatically deducting money from members' paychecks to finance political activities. Final action on the bill is expected Thursday, when another yes vote would send it to the Senate.
Similar legislation cleared the House in 2012 but died when it went to the Senate. But Republicans now have supermajorities in both legislative chambers, and Gov. Sam Brownback is a GOP conservative, making it likely the measure will become law later this year.
Supporters contend they're trying to protect teachers and other government workers from being coerced into contributing to political activities they don't support.
"We're really speaking for the silent majority out there," said Rep. Marvin Kleeb, an Overland Park Republican. "The plain fact is, this isn't just about teachers, this is about all government employees who have limited resources."
He said that workers could still contribute to union political action committees through writing their own personal checks or having deductions from their bank accounts. Kleeb said many union members who have PAC contributions taken from their checks do so to be "part of the team" in the eyes of the colleagues.
"I don't think there is any coercion, any blatant pressure to contribute," Kleeb said.
Critics, mainly from the Democratic caucus, argued Wednesday that the bill is part of a broader campaign against union activities, including national efforts to curb union members' bargaining rights.
Rep. Ed Trimmer of Winfield, a teacher for nearly 40 years, said he has never heard of a teacher being coerced to join the Kansas National Education Association or treated differently by other teachers if they aren't members.
"School districts agree to do this. There's been no problem shown other than somebody thinks that we ought not to do it," Trimmer said.
Rep. Nile Dillmore, a Wichita Democrat, said the measure treaded close to infringing on workers' constitutional rights to free speech by limiting their ability to be part of the political process.
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.