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Kansas considers taking over federal workplace regulation

Allison Kite, Associated Press

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Some Kansas lawmakers want the state to take over the job of writing and enforcing workplace regulations, despite concerns by a labor rights group that the change could water down safety oversight.

Lawmakers and some business groups say a state-run program approved by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would ensure local control over regulation that has to be at least as effective as the federal program under current law.

"We know our business better. We know our mix of businesses better. We know their issues better than somebody in D.C.," said Sen. Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican.

Twenty-eight states have state-run programs. Six of them just extend coverage to state and local government workers who are not covered by federal oversight. Kansas businesses are currently inspected by federal officials based in an area office in Wichita, said an official from the Department of Labor.

Republican lawmakers and business groups that support the plan say it would ease regulatory burdens but still provide for worker safety because the federal government requires state regulation plans to be at least as effective as the federal one. A labor rights group says the programs are less effective because they can be underfunded and often impose smaller fines.

Lynn introduced a bill to start the process on behalf of Senate leadership, and 24 Republican senators ran on a platform that included regulation reform. The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on the bill Wednesday.

Senate President Susan Wagle said the legislature took up the bill at the urging of construction contractors because "excessive regulations are very harmful to business."

Mike Gibson, executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of Kansas, said his organization has asked the Legislature to consider the bill for the last three years. It got a hearing but not a vote in 2015. He said legal costs associated with paying and fighting fines make it harder to do business.

Officials with the AFL-CIO labor union say the state programs aren't as effective, and the Government Accountability Office says some states have struggled to complete all their inspections because of funding challenges . That could be an obstacle because of Kansas' budget, Lynn said.

Bruce Tunnell, lobbyist for the Kansas AFL-CIO, said Kansas didn't have the money to run the program correctly. The Government Accountability Office also says some states have struggled to retain trained inspectors.

"Once they get someone trained, they're going to chase the money and go somewhere else," Tunnell said.

He said that means unsafe work places could go uninspected or get inspected by someone who isn't qualified.

Another member of the labor group took issue with the smaller fines imposed under state plans . Peg Seminario, safety and health director for the national AFL-CIO, said state officials might be more hesitant to impose hefty fines if a business has political pull in the state.

"In some cases, they're too close," Seminario said.

If the bill passes, it would direct the Department of Labor to submit a plan to the federal government for approval. The state would have to fund the program for about three years until it gets approval. Then it can impose fines and the federal government would fund up to 50 percent of the program, according to a state financial estimate.