Supporters testify on Kan. union PAC bill

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- A proposed bill to end the practice of allowing Kansas government agencies to automatically deduct contributions from union member paychecks for union political action committees is constitutional, supporters argued Wednesday.

Several representatives from business interest groups and attorneys told the Senate Commerce Committee that the measure would not limit the rights of unions or their members to participate in the political process.

Supporters said the intent was to take the government out of the business of collecting money for political action. Public union employees would still be able to write a personal check or set up an automatic bank transfer to the union PAC, but would be required to do so themselves.

Eric Carter, a Johnson County attorney and former Kansas House member, tried to allay constitutional concerns about limiting free speech of union members, saying the language appeared to be identical to Internal Revenue Service regulations regarding unions and tax-exempt status. He also cited several federal court rulings that have upheld the rights of states to bar paycheck deductions for public union PACs, including a case involving Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the state's teachers union.

"This is not new law," Carter said. "It is well settled law that this is constitutional, period."

However, Senate President Susan Wagle, a longtime supporter of ending the paycheck deductions, said she's concerned about a new definition of political activity in the bill, which she says may have cost a few votes of support when it was passed in the House.

Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said she wanted "a level of comfort" about the language in the bill before moving forward, based on concerns raised Tuesday by labor attorney Rebecca Proctor who argued against the bill.

"I think that's what arose yesterday," Wagle said. "What I don't want is anything that is going to weigh down this bill or goes to court and causes to delay the bill."

Proctor spoke Tuesday when opponents were given their day to testify on the proposal. She told the committee that the bill was broadly worded and she believed the bill could go so far as to prevent unions from advocating for particular values or issues that are not partisan but are ideological, such as testifying before the Legislature on worker safety or education.

"This bill is insidious and completely silences the voice of many union members," Proctor said.

She based that on limitations placed on how unions could use their money in the political process, such as hiring lobbyists to testify on matters that would affect union employees, which could silence any voice during legislative debates.

Committee members suggested in their line of questioning that the bill could be narrowed just to the PAC deduction ban without speaking to other political activities.

The committee took no action on the bill after the hearing. Any changes to the bill if approved by the Senate would send the bill back to the House for approval, or sent to a conference committee to work out the differences.