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Good On Paper?

news1-1Proposition 32 promises campaign finance reform, but is there a catch?

If you liked the Citizens United Supreme Court decision—which recognized corporate “personhood” and equated money with free speech—California labor unions are saying you’re also bound to like Proposition 32. But unions aren’t the only forces coming out against Prop. 32, or the “Political Contributions by Payroll Deduction, Contributions to Candidates Initiative.” Two of the state’s leading, nonpartisan government reform groups, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, say Prop. 32 is a “deceptive measure” that will greatly expand the political influence of one particular interest group: large businesses and corporations.

If passed, the measure would forbid labor unions, corporations, and government contractors from using payroll deductions to raise money for political purposes. It would also prohibit them from making direct contributions to candidates and candidates' committees. According to Paul Johnston, former executive director of the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council and a long time member of the American Federation of Teachers, the initiative looks like across-the-board campaign finance reform, but there’s a catch.

Few corporations or government contractors use payroll deductions to raise money for political purposes, according to legislative analysts, but labor unions depend on them. And union payroll deductions for political purposes are already voluntary. By eliminating the use of payroll deduction, Johnson says the measure is aimed at silencing the political voice of labor unions and working people.

“So it's no wonder that right-wing billionaires like the Koch Brothers have funded Prop. 32 to take away our political voice,” Johnston writes to GT in an email, “and it's no wonder that, along with passing Prop. 30, stopping Prop. 32 is our highest priority."

According to the Sacramento Bee, No on Prop. 32 campaign committees have raised about $52 million, mostly from public sector unions. Fundraising in support of Prop. 32 is more difficult to track because much of it comes through various political action committees (PACs) and multi-issue independent committees. Yes on Prop. 32 committees report receipt of $3.5 million, but that does not include a contribution of $22 million made by Charles Munger, Jr., a Palo Alto physicist and California Republican Party activist, to a separate, independent committee formed to support Prop. 32 and oppose Prop. 30. It also does not include a $4 million donation to the California Future Fund, supporting Prop. 32, from the Iowa-based American Future Fund that has ties to billionaire GOP donors Charles and David Koch.    

Steve Walker, a UC Santa Cruz shuttle bus driver and member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3299, says there are two main misconceptions about payroll deductions made by labor unions: that the union paycheck deductions are not voluntary, and that regular union dues are often used for political purposes.

“Both of these misconceptions are false,” says Walker. “The paycheck deduction for political purposes is purely voluntary, and needs to be expressly approved by each member. Members can opt out of this deduction at any time. Secondly, it’s very clear to me that my union cannot use any of my regular dues for political purposes. The political contribution is an entirely separate deduction. I know people who contribute much more than the standard $5 a paycheck for political activities, and the deduction is absolutely voluntary.”

David Wolfe, legislative director for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, a key supporter of Prop. 32, says the measure is all about “empowering the taxpayer.” Wolfe says he is one of thousands of special interest lobbyists working in Sacramento every day, where he has observed there is “not a tremendous voice for the average taxpayer in California politics.” The principal aim of Prop. 32, Wolfe says, is to “allow the voice of the average taxpayer to be heard, with their own money, however they decide to spend it, with checks written from their own checkbooks.”

Wolfe believes the current “voluntary nature” of union paycheck deductions for political purposes is suspect, as are the opt-out provisions, which vary from union to union, and “are not clearly set in stone.”

“The level of union intimidation of members to ‘go along and get along’ with the paycheck deduction has been growing exponentially,” says Wolfe. 

He uses the example of a new teacher without tenure. Would that teacher risk jeopardizing his or her career by opting out of the paycheck deduction, he wonders? “In that situation, would you feel OK about approaching your union rep and saying you want to opt out?” Wolfe asks. “If the deduction is so voluntary, why are unions fighting tooth and nail against getting rid of it? Prop. 32 will empower both taxpayers and union members. People should know exactly how their political contributions are being spent, and in most cases today union members don’t know or have any control over how their contributions are used.” 

Matthew Nathanson, a public health nurse for the Santa Cruz County Health Department and member of SEIU Local 521 is convinced that Prop. 32 is another attempt to “silence working people.”

“[It] tries to change the fundamental rules of the game,” he says.

Nathanson says his union’s political deductions are used to defend and advocate for a wide range of issues that are critical for working people—not just union members—including better healthcare, portability of 401K accounts, and defending social security. Prop. 32 is comparable to “changing the rules of a fair fight between right- and left-handed people by requiring left-handed people to tie one hand behind their back before getting into the ring,” says Nathanson. “It’s about moneyed interests better able to control who gets elected.”

Prop. 32 outlaws direct campaign contributions to candidates or candidates committees by unions, corporations and government contractors, but does not restrict any contributions to so-called Super PACs or independent expenditure committees. While it’s clear to John Roeder, president of the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association, which has endorsed Prop. 32, that banning payroll deductions will “have less effect on corporations,” he adds that the “overall playing field will be more level with [an] outright ban on contributions directly to candidates.” Roeder takes exception to the critics calling the initiative “sneaky” and “deceptive.”

“I’ll leave it to voters to actually read the proposition and decide for themselves if there’s anything sneaky about it,” he says. “I think its pretty straightforward.”  

There is only one degree of separation between Prop. 32, the Citizen’s United Supreme Court decision and the Lincoln Club of Orange County, a group of wealthy businesspeople who led the fundraising effort to get Prop. 32 on the ballot. The Lincoln Club also partly funded Citizens United’s Clinton-bashing film Hillary: The Movie (2008), which was explicitly designed to challenge the McCain-Feingold ban on the broadcasting of political ads paid for by corporations during election season. When the Supreme Court decided in favor of Citizens United and unleashed unlimited, anonymous spending by corporations for political purposes, the Lincoln Club hailed the decision as a victory for free speech. The Lincoln Club did not respond to repeated attempts for comment on their support of Prop. 32.

In a comic video released by SEIU Local 521 just in time for Halloween, Prop. 32 is characterized as a “zombie bill” that has been killed twice by California voters, but just won’t die. Prop. 32 is the third attempt in 12 years to amend the California's Political Reform Act of 1974 to regulate or otherwise limit payroll deductions for political purposes by the initiative process. Prop. 226 in 1998 and Prop. 75 in 2005 were both defeated by similar margins, with about 53 percent of voters opposing and 46 percent of voters in favor of the previous propositions.

Comments (1)Add Comment
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written by MOP, October 23, 2012
political contributions are "voluntary" much in the same way Prop 32 is broad campaign finance reform. They make it so cumbersome and unadvertised that hardly anyone opts out. A letter has to be sent every year opting out; there is no permanent method. And I have to use my supplies and my stamp to get out of contributing to their causes.

In spite of its flaws, I am voting yes on 32.

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