Union leaders and business advocates clashed Wednesday in a tense debate over how public unions collect money for political advocacy.
A proposal being debated by a House panel would ban public employee unions from automatically deducting money from members' paychecks for political activities, essentially forcing unions to ask members to write checks that could back campaigns.
But many see it as an opening salvo in a larger fight to limit or eliminate government worker unions --particularly teachers unions.
That came into focus when Kansas Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Eric Stafford criticized unions for not showing how they spend their money on their websites.
"Is that all you need is that information?" Rep. Annie Tietze, D-Topeka, asked.
"No, that's not all I need," Stafford said. "I need this bill passed so we can get rid of public sector unions."
Stafford suggested that unions may not be backing agendas that their members truly agree with, and he and other business groups said unions intimidate members into signing agreements that let unions snag a piece of their paycheck for campaign activity.
"If an employee wants to support the political activity of their organization, they can simply write a check," he said.
Unions called it rubbish, and they contend that singling out government workers is an unconstitutional effort to silence their political voice.
"Since when is it wrong, criminal, too expensive, un-American to want to act collectively to improve your lot in life?" asked David Schauner, a lawyer with the Kansas National Education Association. "(The bill) attempts to silence the collective voice of Kansas teachers."
The debate over public union payroll deductions pits some of the state's most powerful political players against each other.
On one side are conservative groups that helped bankroll campaigns last fall for conservative Republicans -- the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity. On the other are big employee organizations that backed moderate Republicans and Democrats -- the Kansas National Education Association and Kansas AFL-CIO.
Union leaders see the payroll deduction as a convenient way to facilitate free speech. Business leaders call the bill a way to protect public employees from arm-twisting that amplifies voices they may not agree with.
Overland Park Republican Rep. Marvin Kleeb, who is the chairman of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, said he has heard from many teachers who feel pressured to join unions and contribute to political activities.
He said that without that automatic deduction, more teachers would likely hang onto that portion of their check.
"We're trying to make this easier for all of them to make decisions that are best for them," he said.
The House panel plans to debate and potentially vote whether to advance the bill to the full House on Thursday.