Monday, February 11, 2013

Democrats propose initiatives, criticize bills opposed by unions

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

Democratic legislators Monday blasted Republican-sponsored anti-union proposals they said would silence opposing viewpoints.

Measures that would prohibit voluntary paycheck deductions for union political action committees, eliminate collective bargaining laws, delay unemployment benefits and change the workers' compensation appeal process are all moving through the Legislature.

"I have never seen an all-out assault on working Kansans like we are witnessing right now," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence.

Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, said House Bill 2023 is taken straight from model legislation put together by the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council.

The Kansas Chamber of Commerce-backed measure would prohibit public union members from making voluntary payroll deductions to their organization's political action committee.

Supporters of the bill say it would protect workers who disagree with their unions and remove government from the process of deducting pay for union activity.

But Holland said that HB 2023 was an example of measures supported by Charles and David Koch "to benefit their interests."

The brothers are the owners of Wichita-based Koch Industries and financial supporters of several conservative causes. Missy Cohlmia, a spokeswoman for Koch Industries, said Koch did not lobby on this bill. She added, "Equally troubling is the senator's attack on a Kansas-based company that employs nearly 3,000 people in the state and pays compensation and benefits totaling more than $370 million."

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, defended the Republican-backed measures. “House Republicans believe in giving Kansas workers options," Merrick said.

"The bills empower workers to negotiate the terms of their employment directly with employers, giving them more freedom and more choices. This is good for the worker as well as the employers who create jobs," he said.

The Democrats held a news conference to unveil a series of measures they said would help working families.

One proposal would create preferences to hire Kansans and purchase from Kansans first in the procurement of state labor and services.

Another would increase the state minimum wage by tying it to the consumer price index. The current state minimum wage is the same as the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.

And Holland has introduced a bill that would require state government to use the federal database E-verify to check the immigration status of new employees. The legislation also would apply to state contracts.

With only 33 members in the 125-member House and eight in the 40-member Senate, Democrats conceded they faced an uphill struggle to pass some of their initiatives and stop bills opposed by unions.