Lawmakers were already on the brink of civil war before Rep. Chad Bennion brought slavery into an argument for his bill prohibiting public employees from making payroll deductions for political action committees.

"You mean to tell me you're comparing this to slavery?" bellowed Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City. "You're trying to free the slaves on this? Come now, come now."

Davis and his tag team partner Sen. Ed Mayne, D-West Valley City, grilled supporters of HB179 during the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Development Committee meeting. The Republican-controlled panel ultimately voted 4-2 to send the bill to the Senate floor where it is expected to pass.

Bennion, R-Murray, was unapologetic after Thursday evening's hearing.

"I used that to make a point that change is hard even if it is the right thing to do," he said.

Banning government workers from having PAC donations automatically deducted from their checks is the absolute wrong thing to do, according to the Utah Public Employees Association and the Utah Education Association among others. The teachers' union sees the bill as retaliation for its one-day walkout last December. Unions also view it as a jab at free speech.

Gov. Mike Leavitt said at a news conference Thursday that the measure is "not something I've been out stumping for but if it comes to me, I'll sign it." The UEA has already said it will sue if it becomes law.

After the House approved the bill last week, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff had a "gut feeling" it was unconstitutional. But he changed his opinion after doing some checking to see whether his hunch was right.

"My research shows that it is constitutional," he said Thursday.

Mayne says Shurtleff, a Republican, flip-flopped to appease powerful legislators who control the purse strings.

"It's called a budget," Mayne said. "He's a smart man. If you want your budget taken care of, you do what you're told to do."

But House Speaker Marty Stephens said Shurtleff acted on his own. "It's irresponsible to make those kinds of accusations when you have nothing to base it on other than party politics," he said.

Proponents of the bill say it would get government out of collecting PAC money, something the Utah Taxpayers Association and the Utah Eagle Forum say it has no business doing. Providing the deduction option costs the state virtually nothing.

"But if that's true, why are they only targeting government employees?" said Pat Rusk, UEA vice president.

Detractors cited state income tax forms that allow filers to check off donations to the Democratic and Republican parties. "If I want a political party to speak for me, it's OK. If I want my employee union to, it's not?" Rusk said.

Idaho, Wyoming, Washington and Michigan have so-called payroll protection laws, said Wes Quinton of the taxpayers association. But Mayne, who called the bill "payroll deception," noted that voters in California and Oregon rejected it.

Davis says the bill is "nothing more than a national political agenda" of the ultra right wing.

Sen. Dan Eastman, R-Bountiful, said he doesn't see the issue as a big deal.

"I'm frankly amazed at the rancor this has stirred," he said. "To me this is much ado about very little."

State workers, he said, can still contribute to PACs directly or through a payroll deduction set up through a bank or credit union.

"It doesn't make a lot of difference if we pass it. It doesn't make a lot of difference if we reject it," he said.

"Most teachers' PAC donations are made via paycheck deductions. Eliminating that mechanism could result in less money for the PAC, which could weaken the union, UEA leaders say.

Contributing: Jennifer Toomer-Cook.

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