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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Six unions have filed a federal lawsuit challenging a ban on payroll contributions to union-sponsored political action committees.
The public employee unions filed the lawsuit Wednesday, claiming a new version of the Voluntary Contributions Act approved early this year by the Legislature violates the First and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution as well as contradicts part of a federal law recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Filing jointly were the Utah Education Association, the Utah AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers-Utah, the Utah School Employees Association, the Professional Firefighters of Utah and Local 1004 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
The act prohibits labor organizations -- which it defines as all unions not governed by the National Labor Relations Act or the Railroad Labor Act -- from using membership dues for political purposes. Unions must set up separate political action committees for political contributions and cannot draw on membership dues.
The Utah law also forbids labor organizations from requiring members to pay into any funds used for political purposes.
Lawmakers passed the original bill in 2001, saying they wanted to stop what they claimed was government facilitating the use of taxpayer money to fund political lobbying.
The lawsuit charges these prohibitions violate constitutional protections on free speech, freedom to petition the government, free association and the "equal protection" clause of the 14th Amendment.
It names as defendants Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and Lt. Gov. Gayle F. McKeachnie.
"The state has spent over three-quarters of a million dollars trying to prohibit public employees from speaking to their members and the public using dues dollars on matters of essential interest to them," UEA executive director Susan Kuziak said. "We could have hired 17 reading specialists to help the neediest kids. We could have put almost $1,000 into every school building for supplies for kids."
Paul Murphy, spokesman for the attorney general's office, said late Wednesday his office had not yet seen the lawsuit and therefore had no comment.
The revised law was passed by the 2003 Legislature, partially as a result of a state court judgment regarding the 2001 version of the Voluntary Contributions Act.
The UEA and the Utah Public Employees' Association separately sued in 3rd District Court in 2001 over the first version of the law. In December 2002, Judge Stephen Henriod ruled two components of the act unconstitutional. That ruling was part of the reason the 2003 Legislature revisited the statute.
In July 2003, the UPEA settled with the state, winning some attorneys' fees and agreeing in return to drop its pending appeal, comply with the law and promise not to raise any further constitutional challenges to the law. The UEA, however, left open its option of challenging the 2003 law.
Though the law has been in court before, Kuziak said the federal lawsuit is not redundant.
"None of the provisions that are still existing (in the new law) that were adjudicated are being challenged in the same way," she said.
The current lawsuit says the ban on using union dues and public employees' voluntary payroll deductions for political purposes is a violation of freedom of speech. It claims that requiring certain labor organizations -- but not other groups -- to create separate PACs violates equal protection under the law as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.
"We feel that it's a basic fundamental right to be able to communicate with our members and others about nonpartisan issues such as ballot initiatives, about legislative issues," Kuziak said. "We think that others are treated differently than public-employee groups. Corporations, membership organizations and all of those can continue to do whatever they want with their general revenues while we're prohibited."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)