Legislation that the chief lobbyist for the Kansas Chamber of Commerce said would help abolish public employee unions easily passed a state House of Representatives committee Thursday, setting the stage for a floor fight next week.
The state House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee voted 10-5 to approve legislation that would prohibit public employee unions from automatically taking deductions from government employees' paychecks to fund union political activities.
On Wednesday, Eric Stafford, the chief lobbyist for the Kansas Chamber, told committee members "I need this bill passed so we can get rid of public sector unions." Stafford later said the comment was made in a moment of "personal frustration" while he was being questioned by a Democratic legislator.
Thursday's committee action was anticipated on both sides of the debate. State Rep. Brandon Whipple (D-Wichita), a committee member who was leading the charge against the bill, noted that he wished the committee took longer to consider the bill and that supporters had found union members to testify about the legislation. Supporters of the legislation have argued that currently union members are being asked to fund political activities by unions that they may be against personally.
"I knocked on over 15,000 doors in a heavy union district and not one person cited this as a concern," Whipple told The Huffington Post. "People here care about jobs and this committee should work on creating jobs. It is focused instead on partisan fights. I am not supportive about how fast the controversial issues are going through committee."
State Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady (R-Palco), who introduced the bill, told HuffPost that it is needed because he doesn't think government should be in the business of funding political groups. Unions could make donations on their own, but without deducting funds from a government paycheck, he said.
"I don't believe that government should be involved in the transaction by the person who wants to join the union and the PAC," Couture-Lovelady said. "If they want to write a separate check, it is in their right to do so. The government should not process transactions."
Opponents of the legislation have argued that the legislation is unnecessary since Kansas is a right-to-work state and union membership is voluntary. In addition, donations to union political action committees are also voluntary under existing state law, according to bill opponents.
Colin Curtis, the spokesman for United Steelworkers 307, told HuffPost that labor groups are currently organizing to try to block the legislation when it comes to the full House for a vote, which be as early as Tuesday. He said this would include trying to rally union members to call legislators and to come to Topeka for the vote.
The bill is expected to pass in the conservative Republican-dominated legislature. Gov. Sam Brownback (R) has not indicated a position on the bill. A similar bill passed the House but failed in the state Senate in 2012, but the Senate became more conservative following the 2012 election.
Topeka Councilman Chad Manspeaker (D), who is also a staffer for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 304, said he wasn't surprised by the vote but remains surprised by Stafford's explanation of his comment about getting ride of unions.
“If I am the most powerful lobby in the state, I would expect my lobbyist to do a better job," Manspeaker said. "A committee meeting is an open dialogue and expect tough questions. It is a shame it came to that. He said what everyone in my world believes to be their true intent.”