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Kansas Union Bill Passes Preliminary Vote

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Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback

The Republican-dominated Kansas House of Representatives gave preliminary passage to a contentious anti-union billon Wednesday, overcoming opposition from 21 Republican lawmakers who abandoned their party to join Democrats.

The 66-54 vote moves ahead legislation that would strip Kansas public employees of the ability to have donations to union political action committees deducted through their paychecks. The bill, the first in a series of anti-union measures to move through the Legislature, was described by the chief lobbyist for the Kansas Chamber of Commerce as part of a plan to "get rid of" public employee unions. A final House vote is scheduled for Thursday.

"I'm disappointed obviously," state Rep. Brandon Whipple (D-Wichita), a leading opponent of the bill, told The Huffington Post. "I don't think our role as lawmakers is to tell hard-working employees what they can and can't do with their paycheck."

Lawmakers voted following a 40-minute debate. The short debate is in contrast to last year's debate on controversial anti-abortion legislation, which lawmakers discussed for several hours. The bill had attracted large crowds of union supporters to the Capitol, which prompted GOP leaders to call in extra police and urge lawmakers to take security precautions, including urging Republican women to walk with a "male escort."

Second votes in the Kansas House typically mirror the preliminary votes, but opponents said they hope to peel off enough votes to deny supporters the 63 votes needed.

Whipple said he holds little hope. "Perhaps if my prayers are answered," he said. "I think it will be on the same lines as today. It will probably pass."

Four lawmakers were absent from Wednesday's vote, including three Republicans who support the bill.

Union organizers said they hope that a grassroots campaign can change the outcome.

"This is the first of many draconian pieces of legislation. I am confident as the session progresses that rank and file workers will begin to understand what the conservative Legislature's agenda is all about," Topeka Councilman Chad Manspeaker (D), also a staffer for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 304, said. "I am hopeful that constituents will continue to call there reps and remain and encourage them to defeat this bill."

A similar bill passed the Kansas House in 2011 and failed in the state Senate, then controlled by moderate Republicans. Conservative Republicans took control of the Senate following last year's election. Senate President Susan Wagle (R-Wichita) told The Wichita Eagle the bill will pass there.

Other bills pending in the Kansas House would end collective bargaining for teachers and other public employees, and prohibit local governments from setting their own minimum-wage laws. State Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina), a leading supporter of the anti-union legislation, told HuffPost that the first vote shows how the other bills are likely to fare.

"I think you look at this vote as a benchmark as we look at how other bills go on unions," Claeys said.

This year's measures come as moderates in the state have accused Gov. Sam Brownback (R) and his allies -- including the Koch brothers, owners of Wichita-based Koch Industries -- of trying to create an "ultraconservative utopia."

Whipple is pushing for lawmakers to change their agenda.

"I would have hoped that the first thing we had done as a Legislature was something to create jobs, instead of taking away a benefit," Whipple said.

William Wrigley contributed to this report.

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