Thursday, January 24, 2013

Business, labor clash over bill aimed at restricting union politicking

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

Business interests on Wednesday called for the eradication of public employee unions as they pushed for passage of a bill that unions said would limit their ability to participate in politics.

“I need this bill passed so we can get rid of public sector unions,” Eric Stafford, senior director of government affairs for the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, told the House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee.

But representatives of the Kansas National Education Association and other employee groups said their ability to collect funds on a voluntary basis to participate in the political process was a constitutional right.

“Denying teachers the right to payroll deduction is simply not fair,” said Anna Moon Bradley, a teacher in the Marais des Cygnes school district. “It denies us the freedom to chose how our paychecks are spent, and frankly, ultimately denies us our freedom of speech.”

Former state Rep. Ann Mah, a Democrat from Topeka, said the bill illustrated the clash between political action committees funded by the billionaire Koch brothers of Wichita and those funded by union members.

“I encourage you to just say ‘No’ to corporate special interests and stand up for the people instead,” she said.

The committee will work on the bill and possibly vote on it Thursday.

Testimony on the measure indicated it was primarily aimed at the KNEA and Kansas Organization of State Employees, but Committee Chairman Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park, said it would apply to all public employee unions.

Under House Bill 2023, professional employee organizations would be prohibited from collecting funds from an employee’s paycheck and use of those funds for political purposes, such as donating to candidates, or working for the passage of a bond issue. Public employee organizations would be prohibited from endorsing candidates.

Union members argued they donate these funds voluntarily, but state Sen. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park, and other supporters of the bill said teachers are sometimes coerced into paying.

Smith said when he became a teacher there was pressure put on new hires to join the KNEA.

“It’s just an insidious way to get money from someone,” he said.

But opponents of the bill said no one twists anyone’s arm to join KNEA.

“It just doesn’t happen,” said David Schauner, general counsel for the KNEA.

He said the impetus for the bill was to silence the voice of teachers in the political arena, especially now that legislative leaders and Gov. Sam Brownback have called for measures to thwart a court order for more school funding. Earlier this month, a three-judge panel said the Legislature failed its constitutional duty to adequately fund schools and ordered a $440 million increase.

The KNEA is often at odds with the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and other business groups. The Kansas Chamber was instrumental in the last election in switching the Senate from moderate control to conservative control.

“When those in power decide to punish those who have publicly disagreed, then we are lost as a democracy,” Schauner said.

But business interests said businesses resent that people paid with tax dollars can pool their monies to try to elect candidates they favor.

Stafford said that union leaders protected their self interests instead of the interests of the union members. But Mike Marvin, executive director of KOSE, said the public employee unions “are the epitome of democracy.”

Marvin said union members elect leaders, who decide where political action funds go.

Stafford cited instances of what he said were excessive salaries and benefits of state employees from other areas of the country, but Marvin said that wasn’t the case in Kansas.

“We can’t hire people to work at our state hospitals because the wages are so low. People are working 16-hour shifts, three or four days a week to cover,” Marvin said.