California hasn’t been “in play” during a presidential race in years. Normally, California plays the role of the lead investor — i.e., the ATM — in presidential politics. This year, however, California is set to eclipse Wisconsin on the national Richter scale of political tremors.
On the November ballot is Proposition 32 — an initiative that would ban direct giving to candidates by corporations and unions and provide paycheck protection to public-employee-union members.
Between Prop 32, the dozen congressional seats that are up for grabs, and a huge tax increase that’s also on the ballot, California is truly a battleground state this year.
Prop 32 reflects three things: (1) voter frustration with special interests’ ownership of Sacramento; (2) a desire for public-employee-union reform; and (3) a belief that the combined reforms — serious restrictions on the political activities of both unions and corporations — will be acceptable to California voters.
Voters have good reasons to be frustrated with their political leaders. California has unfunded state and local pension liabilities as high as $700 billion, a serious foreclosure problem, and numerous localities that are nearing or in bankruptcy. And for nearly two decades, Democrats have had strong majorities in both houses of the legislature.
It’s also clear why unions are a major target of Prop 32. According to the venerable Sacramento Bee writer Dan Walters, “the Legislature’s Democratic majority [is] utterly beholden to unions for political sustenance and with a governor, Jerry Brown, whose 2010 campaign relied on union financing, unions and their 2.4 million members are at the apogee of political influence.” In the previous decade, the state’s two most powerful unions, the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the Service Employees International Union, spent over $319 million on political campaigns and lobbying.
Two examples of the unions’ power are telling.
First, Governor Jerry Brown has given the unions a direct say in how the state is governed. For example, he gave a public-employee-union leader a seat at the table — alongside the governor’s two Democratic legislative leaders — for budget negotiations. He didn’t give it to taxpayers or employers; he gave it to a public-employee-union leader. Then, not surprisingly, when it came time for Brown to work out a deal to put a tax increase on the ballot, he “negotiated” with union leaders. The result: a punitive tax proposal that, if passed, will take California’s top tax rate from 10.3 percent to 13.3 percent.
Second, there is the story of how the CTA blocked legislation that would have made it easier to dismiss teachers in the wake of a horrific sexual-abuse scandal. No greater example could exist as proof that the CTA is far more concerned about teachers than about students.
The unions’ power, however great, is not the only thing that frustrates voters. In the last decade, the top 15 donors in California spent over a billion dollars. Over $250 million is spent each year in lobbying. Those numbers are on the rise despite a bad economy.
California voters suffering from foreclosure and unemployment worries are taking matters into their own hands. Last June, in the Democrat-dominated city of San Jose, voters passed comprehensive and retroactive pension reform on public-employee-union members by an astonishing 69-to-31 margin. They did so despite a barrage of ads from unions. Since then, a slew of municipal bankruptcies have only fueled the reform storyline.
If it passes, Prop 32 will force politicians to get their donations from voters, not unions or corporations. Quite frankly, California politicians have fallen in love with max-out checks from big entities instead of $25 checks from everyday people. While unions and corporations can still exercise their free-speech rights by giving to PACs and running ads, they won’t be able to donate directly to candidates. Instead, politicians will have to be accountable to voters.
The polls show that voters favor the passage of Prop 32 by margins nearly as high as those of the San Jose vote. Recent union ads appear to have cut into that margin, but there are reasons to suspect that polls underestimate support for Prop 32 — they also underestimated the support for the pension reform in San Jose.
Those polls likely are missing the unease of the electorate — voters’ worries about keeping their homes and their suspicion that Sacramento is not listening. The last time that California voters were in this mood was in 1978. Back then, inflation was forcing voters out of their homes by pushing up their property taxes. Jerry Brown and Sacramento politicians were unresponsive, and the voters limited property taxes through Prop 13 — a reform that was still finding its way, 34 years later, in places like New York and New Jersey.
If Prop 32 passes, you can expect a huge drop in the number of union members who give to union PACs — as we saw in Wisconsin. You can also expect more balance in the state legislature, where union-supported candidates dramatically outspend their opponents under the current rules.
More than that, though, if Prop 32 passes, you can expect the pace of public-employee-union reform to pick up dramatically nationwide. Prop 32 could be the Prop 13 of the union-reform movement.
— Thomas Del Beccaro is the chairman of the California Republican party. He is the publisher of PoliticalVanguard.com, the author of The New Conservative Paradigm, and a frequent talk-radio and television commentator.
Editor’s Note: This article has been amended since its initial posting.