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Teachers scramble as Senate hears bill

POSTED February 5, 2013 5:35 p.m.

Soon, it may be illegal for USD 428 to continue to make payroll deductions of Kansas National Education Association dues and political action support by teachers in Great Bend. That’s if House Bill 2023 is enacted into law. The bill was passed by the State House of Representatives in a 68 to 56 vote on Thursday, Jan. 31. This week, it is being heard by the Senate, and if passed there, will go on to be signed by Governor Sam Brownback, and will go into effect immediately. It has spurred local teachers to seek alternative ways to protect their right to free speech.

“Right now, the largest voice working for our students is our KNEA representatives,” said KNEA member Kim Heath, an English teacher at Great Bend High School. “The vote to take away the freedom of public employees to contribute politically through payroll deduction is the first attempt from Topeka to silence this voice and remove the road blocks to destroying our schools.”

 House Bill 2023, coined as the “Payroll Protection Act,” is targeted specifically at public sector unions, making it illegal for funds withheld from public sector employee paychecks to be used for any type of political activity. Not only does it specify funds used for support of political action committees, it includes added restrictions by penalizing unions for a period of two years for using dues collected through withholding for any political use.

The broad-based definition is so all-encompassing of the work done by public employee organizations, it would effectively cause unions to discontinue the use of payroll deduction.

Other forms of withholding are still OK, including withholding of taxes, 401K and other retirement contributions, insurance premiums, donations to 501c3 non-profit organizations, loans, purchase of equipment or uniforms, and other non-politically oriented spending.

State Representative John Edmonds, R-Great Bend and Hoisington, who represents District 112 which includes Great Bend and Hoisington, as well as the townships of Albion, Buffalo, Eureka, Great Bend, Liberty, North Homestead, South Bend and South Homestead, voted in favor of the bill.

“Members of the teacher’s union and other government unions are still at liberty to write a check, which is what most of us do.” he said.  “About the only thing that should be witheld from paychecks are federal and state taxes, medicaid and Social Security contributions.  All else is a gray area.”  When asked about contributions to non-profits, such as the United Way, which are commonly withheld from employee paychecks, Edmonds said the same case could be made.

Heath said about 60 percent of the faculty of Great Bend schools are members of Great Bend NEA.

“Membership in our professional organization is encouraged, but is completely voluntary,” she said. “Our dues are withheld each month from our paychecks. Most people choose to pay their dues in this way.”

But for proponents of the bill, like Rep. Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park, who chairs the Committee on Commerce, Labor and Development, they question how voluntary support of professional organizations is.

According to a Jan. 30 story by Andy Marso, reporter for the Topeka Capital Journal, “Kleeb, in his closing statement on the bill, alluded to several other states where union dues fell off precipitously after similar measures passed. He said that was evidence the bill would protect a ‘silent majority’ of public employees, some of whom may have joined unions only because of ‘self-imposed pressure’ to “be part of the team.
“I urge you to stand up for those who won’t stand up for themselves,” Kleeb said. “It’s why we’re here.”

According to Marso, Rep. Brandon Whipple, D-Wichita, said the bill is government interfering with people’s paychecks, but Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, took the opposite view.

“This bill is about getting the government out of the business of collecting money on behalf of political action committees,” Hutton said.
According to Heath, at a legislative coffee held on Saturday, Feb. 2, at the Kansas Oil and Gas Museum in Great Bend, both State Senator Mitch Holmes and Edmonds were present, and members of the GBNEA turned out to voice opposition for the bill. They were joined by Dr. Tom Vernon, superintendent of USD 428.

“He brought the message that USD 428 works with the local teacher organization to create the best possible learning environment for our students,” she said.

“This is not a burden for the district,” Vernon said. “This is done once at the beginning of each school year and it only takes a couple of hour’s time.”

He acknowledged that the district also does payroll deductions for United School Administrators, United Way, Club One Fitness, and a host of tax-sheltered annuities.

“This is not a big, expensive problem for us and I don’t see the need to stop the practice,” he said. “I see it as a time-saving practice for teachers.”

However, according to Edmonds, when multiplied by the number of districts statewide, the time spent gets to be significant.  Edmonds is a Certified Public Accountant, and pointed out that in addition to the time spent actually making the deduction, there are issues of reconciliation at the end of the year that must be made also.

A lobbyist from the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Eric Stafford, may have hit upon the true purpose of the bill during a heated debate Thursday, Jan. 30. When Rep. Annie Tietze, D-Topeka, asked if different accounting practices would be enough he said, “No. I need this bill to pass so we can get rid of public sector unions,” according to Marso.

When asked in an e-mail by a Tribune reporter to explain what interest the Kansas Chamber of Commerce had in public sector unions, Stafford responded, “We believe government should not interfere in the role of, or facilitate the membership of members and public sector unions. That relationship should be between the member and the union. Any assistance by the government gives the appearance of a government endorsement of unions and that is not the role of government.”

The KNEA website posts another answer:

“This bill is the Kansas Chamber of Commerce’s pet legislation. During the 2012 elections, the KCC repeated attacked the Kansas NEA for being ‘big spenders’ in political campaigns. KCC endorsed candidates were up against KNEA recommended candidates in many races. Even though the KCC was victorious in most races, their candidates are helping them eliminate the one organization that sought to counter their message.”

What’s next
Those in favor of the bill say it in no way forbids employees from continuing to support their union and it’s political activities. It simply forbids it to be done with funds withheld from paychecks.

The bill also specifically targets public employees, as it states, “In the application and construction of this section, fundamental distinctions between private and public employment shall be recognized, and no body of federal or state law applicable wholly or in part to private employment shall be regarded as binding or controlling precedent.”

Heath says because of the legislation, the KNEA is currently preparing as an organization to collect dues through other means.
“We are working very hard as an organization to convert our members to other forms of payment,” she said. “Most are planning to have electronic debits from their bank accounts set-up if and when it becomes necessary.”

Republican State Sen. Mitch Holmes, who represents Barton, Edwards, Kiowa, Lane, Ness, Pawnee, Pratt, Rush, Scott and Stafford counties, and parts of Hodgeman and Rice counties, will soon have his opportunity to vote. The bill was referred to the committee on commerce on Friday, Feb. 1, and was being heard on the Senate floor on Tuesday morning, and will continue to be heard on Wednesday morning. Holmes could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

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