Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Opponents of anti-union bill say it could shut down nearly all union political speech

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

Opponents of an anti-union bill said Tuesday they fear the measure could prevent public sector employee unions from nearly all political speech.

Rebecca Proctor, an attorney who specializes in labor law, told the Senate Commerce Committee that the bill could prevent state workers from participating in the political process through public union political action committees.

“This bill is insidious,” Proctor said. “It will completely silence the voice of many public employees.”

House Bill 2023 was approved last week by the House, and is now being heard in the Commerce Committee.

Much of the debate about the bill has centered on how it would affect the Kansas National Education Association. The measure would prohibit teachers from making voluntary paycheck deductions into the KNEA’s political action committee.

But the second part of HB 2023 deals with all other public sector employees, such as state and local workers.

That portion of the bill states that public employee organizations would be prohibited from spending any income from dues or any periodic payment for political activities.

The bill expands the definition of political activities to include union activities to influence any election.

Proctor said the bill essentially dismantles public union political action committees.

“You are silencing those who are at the heart of government,” Proctor told the Commerce Committee. “Why wouldn’t you want these people’s input?”

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, argued that teachers and other public employees receive tax dollars and sometimes they lobby for policies that taxpayers don’t want.

But Proctor said once the employees are paid, that money belongs to them, not the taxpayers, and the employees should be able do what they want with their money.

Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, who opposes the bill, said Proctor’s testimony raised serious concerns about whether the measure would stifle free speech rights. He urged the committee to send the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it could be vetted by attorneys on that panel.

Sen. Pat Apple, R-Louisburg, asked the committee staff to research whether the bill would prohibit a government employee from participating in or donating to a political action committee.

Supporters of the bill, including the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, are scheduled to testify on Wednesday.

In the House, supporters of the measure said it was necessary to prevent teachers from feeling like they are being coerced to join the association. But opponents say no one is pressured to join the KNEA or public unions.