The Republican-dominated Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee approved the measure on a 10-5 vote, sending it to the entire House for debate, possibly next week. Opponents of the bill saw parallels between Kansas and Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker gained national attention for pushing to strip most union workers of their bargaining rights.
The Kansas measure would prohibit groups that represent teachers and government workers from automatically deducting money from members' paychecks to finance political activities. Republicans have supermajorities in both legislative chambers, and Gov. Sam Brownback is a GOP conservative, making it likely the measure will become law later this year.
Critics' belief that the bill is part of a larger campaign against unions was reinforced by the comment a day earlier from Eric Stafford of the powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce during the House committee's hearing on the bill. Stafford made the remark while being questioned by Rep. Annie Tietze, a Topeka Democrat who opposes the measure.
Stafford later apologized privately to committee members for becoming frustrated when Tietze pressed him about what the Kansas Chamber needs from lawmakers. As for getting rid of public employee unions, he said, "That's not the goal."
"I got frustrated and lost my cool," Stafford told The Associated Press. "Our goal is focused on the intent of paycheck protection."
Committee Chairman Marvin Kleeb, a conservative Overland Park Republican, said there's no broader "game plan" for the bill's supporters.
Supporters contend they're trying to protect teachers and other government workers from being coerced into contributing to political activities they don't support. Also, they argue, without such a policy, government agencies, as payroll agents, are tangled up in handling money for unions' political action committees.
"This is not taking away anybody's rights to ever — ever — donate money to a political campaign," said freshman state Rep. Allan Rothlisberg, a conservative Grandview Plaza Republican. "State government is saying it's not going to be automatic."
The bill's most vocal critics are Democrats, who receive strong support from the state's largest teachers union and public employee groups. They argue the measure is designed to hamper the groups' fundraising so they're less effective in opposing Brownback and other conservative Republicans.
"It's going to turn Kansas into another Wisconsin, all in the name of trying to silence your opposition," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat. "They're trying to sabotage the rights of working people."
Workers in Kansas can't be required to join unions under a "right to work" provision in the state constitution approved by voters in 1958. Opponents of this year's bill noted paycheck deductions are negotiated between employers and employee groups, and workers themselves agree to deductions used to finance political activities.
Rep. Stan Frownfelter of Kansas City, the committee's ranking Democrat, pointed to another measure introduced by the committee Wednesday. It would prohibit cities and counties from requiring local, private employers to pay more than legally required minimum wage or granting paid or unpaid leave beyond what state and federal law require — and nullify existing local ordinances that already do.
"They've got a step by step process," Frownfelter said. "It's coming right down the line."
Kansas business groups have long favored what supporters call "paycheck protection" legislation. However, even with large Republican majorities and Brownback as governor in 2011, unions still drew enough support from GOP moderates that they and Democrats could block the measure. The Senate's moderate GOP leaders were toppled in last year's elections.