California's Proposition 32: Ending Union Dominance Of California Politics

From the outside looking in, you have to admit that something is a little "off" in California politics.  In the year 2010, while voters nationwide swept Republicans into office high and low, voters in California kept Democrats in office, with the numbers in the California House delegation remaining exactly the same.  Not only did Californians re-elect far-left U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, but California voters also dusted off and voted back in as governor a relic from the 1970's, Jerry "Moon-Beam" Brown.  Californians preserved a Democrat majority in the California Senate and even added to a Democratic majority in the Assembly.

Is union money distorting California electoral politics?  Many think so.  After all, public sector and trade unions are among the biggest donors in California elections. In the years 2000-2010 the California Teachers Association (CTA) was the single largest contributor to California politics, giving twice as much as the second-largest contributor, the California State Council of Service Employees.

In 1998 the CTA even managed to get voters to amend the California state constitution to force the state to spend 40%-50% of all state revenues to pay for public K-14 education.  That's a lot of state money going to the teachers unions in the form of union dues.

Yet in past elections, when unions have had little at stake, Californians have voted more conservatively.  Witness the passages of Prop. 8 in 2008, eliminating same-sex marriage; Prop. 227 in 1998, limiting English as a second language programs in public schools; and Prop. 209 in 1996, eliminating affirmative action in university admissions.  Basically, while California may be a left-of-center state, it is nowhere near as liberal as suggested by recent elections.

The disconnect between the demands of the unions and those of California voters is what backers of Proposition 32 hope to remedy with their proposal to end all union and corporate donations to candidates, and to end automatic union and corporate deductions in paychecks for political contributions.

If this all sounds familiar, it should.  Similar California ballot measures have been proposed and have lost in the past.  Both Proposition 226 in 1998 and Proposition 75 in 2005 went down to defeat, thanks to unions outspending the proponents 4 to 1 in the case of Prop. 226 and 10 to 1 in the case of Prop. 75.

So what is different this time?  For one, momentum from Wisconsin's battle with unions.  A similar measure passed in Wisconsin under Gov. Scott Walker, and Wisconsin Republicans who favored the measure survived a recall.  The knowledge that this measure may actually pass may inspire supporters to actually cast their votes for Prop. 32.

Also, unlike with prior measures, in addition to paycheck protection, Prop. 32 also prohibits corporations and unions from contributing to candidate campaigns, so this measure is more even-handed.  Prop. 32 also prohibits contractors from contributing money to the politicians who will award contracts.

Another difference this time is Gloria Romero, former Democrat state senator and major supporter of Prop. 32.  As California's Senate Democratic majority leader from 2001-2009, she saw first-hand the public-sector union corruption in Sacramento.  "There is no other way to say it politely," she recently told the Wall Street Journal.  "It's owned."  Both in office and later as head of the California chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, Romero has fought for education reform in California, including the ability of parents to take their kids out of failing schools, but has butted heads with the CTA and other public-sector unions many times.  The CTA "has killed or hijacked nearly every reform bill that has popped up in the legislature," she told the Journal.  CTA officials "walk around the capitol "like they're God."

Romero has been featured in a very effective ad supporting Prop. 32, in which she challenges the voter: "if you want to take back California from the special interests, if you want to get big money out of California politics, if you want elected officials to answer to the people again...join me in voting yes on Proposition 32[.]"  It is almost enough to make non-Californians move to California so they can vote for Prop. 32.

Romero's ad is the only Prop. 32 ad that directly takes on the teachers' unions.  Other Prop. 32 ads target the prison guards union and the large corporate campaign donors, and they are all very effective.

This time around, California also has some home-grown momentum.  Earlier this summer San Diego and deep-blue San Jose, California passed ballot measures that kept union pensions from swallowing up their city budgets.  In the case of San Jose, the results were not even close: 70% voted in favor of limiting union pensions.  Suddenly the old union demagoguery didn't work in cities that wanted to keep their same city services along with manageable union pensions, and not raise taxes to pay for it all.

So far, Prop. 32 is still polling even with Californians.  But the unions are putting up a fight.  While Prop. 32 proponents have raised a meager $5 million, opponents to Prop. 32 have amassed $36 million to use in campaigning the issue, with millions more in union dues to come.  That is a lot of money to pay for TV commercials with worried-looking teachers and nurses groveling before Californians, begging the citizenry not to cut their pay.

Anyone wishing to contribute to the efforts to pass Prop. 32 in California may do so by going to the Yes on 32 website here.  The Yes-On-32 folks have also set up a Facebook page where you can follow the battle to adopt 32.

There is a saying in California: "as California goes, so goes the country."  Well, admittedly, that phrase may have itself spread across the country more than actual California policies.  But you have to admit that California's 1978 victory with Prop. 13 spread some tax-cutting frenzy, culminating in tax cuts that were passed under President Reagan in 1981.  It could be that passing Prop. 32 in California could be the next step in regaining control of America's states from out-of-control unions.

Tom Thurlow is an attorney who practices law in the San Francisco Bay Area and manages the blog  He lives in Napa County with his wife Martina and daughter Rachel.

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