Unhappy Californians unwilling to change
By Steven Greenhut
SACRAMENTO — California residents are depressed about the economy and see little hope for change in the near future, yet they seem more reluctant than ever to change the current high-tax, union-dominated political course that has led to the struggling economy.
As the Field Poll revealed in July, “Californians have had an extremely gloomy view of the state’s economy since 2008. … Currently nine out of 10 residents … describe the state’s economy as being in bad times.” The data is a couple months old, but nothing suggests any drastic change since then.
Meanwhile, the latest polling for the two highest-profile November ballot initiatives brings good news for those who embrace the status quo. A Public Policy Institute of California survey shows Gov. Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30, which would temporarily increase the state sales tax and income taxes on those earning at least $250,000 a year, ahead, 52 percent to 40 percent. By the way, how often have you met a temporary tax hike that actually goes away?
Furthermore, PPIC reports that voters have soured on perhaps the most significant statewide initiative on the statewide ballot, Proposition 32, a “paycheck protection” measure that is losing, 49 percent to 42 percent. (Even though support for it is fading, PPIC found a solid majority of voters in favor of the goals of the initiative, which makes California voters even more perplexing.)
The proposition stops the state’s politically dominant unions from using automatic payroll deductions to finance their political activities. The initiative has some other features, such as a bans on political payroll deductions from corporations, on direct giving to political candidates and on political donations from government contractors seeking favors.
But these other provisions are mostly pointless. Corporations do not use payroll deductions to fund political efforts. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, few corporations or unions give political contributions directly to candidates, preferring to use independent campaigns to help chosen candidates. Typical of all initiatives, Prop. 32 includes a few provisions that are meant more to sway voters than to change policy.
Nevertheless, the core issue here — restricting those payroll deductions that are the foundation of union political power — is not just principled, but crucial if California voters are serious about moving the state away from its current political and economic trajectory.
No one should have their money taken by force and used for political purposes that often are at odds with one’s beliefs. No one should have money deducted automatically from their paycheck and given to a private organization without one’s consent. This is a freedom issue as well as a political-influence issue. The current situation is pure coercion.
Under Prop. 32, the unions can still deduct an agency fee from members’ paychecks to pay for collective-bargaining activities. Ironically, liberal groups are complaining that corporations and conservative donors are funding ads supporting Prop. 32, even as massive union spending, thanks to the current forced-donation situation that Prop. 32 addresses, is pounding the initiative with ads making dubious claims about exemptions for wealthy businesses.
States that have passed paycheck-protection-type laws have seen mixed results because of various loopholes and legal challenges, but there’s little question that public- and private-sector union political influence has been reduced in those states. A study by the conservative Heritage Foundation found that, on average, state laws that limit these political payroll reductions slash union political contributions in half. Unions are still able to raise plenty of money — but they have to ask for it rather than just take it.
One major California union called Prop. 32 “the Death Star for unions,” which is an overstatement, but illustrates how concerned the unions are about this proposition.
Consider why it is on the Nov. 6 ballot. Last year, Brown signed Senate Bill 202, requiring ballot initiatives to be decided during general elections, not during lower-turnout primary elections. “Everyone knows that passing SB 202 was to diminish chances that voters would pass a so-called ‘paycheck protection’ measure that would eat into unions’ ability to gather campaign funds from public employees — money that almost always goes to Democrats,” opined Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters.
Brown was elected with strong support from unions and has governed in a way that usually puts their priorities first. The Democratic Party, which controls every statewide constitutional office and could soon have two-thirds control of both houses of the Legislature, is always doing the bidding of the unions. If this doesn’t change, it’s hard to envision an optimistic future here.
Some Democrats understand how unions are destroying public services.
Former Democratic state Sen. Gloria Romero of Los Angeles is a spokesperson for Prop. 32, because she — as a devoted education reformer — has watched the teachers’ union squelch reform and turn California’s public schools into bureaucratic nightmares.
“If we don’t deal with how the beast is fed, and what maintains that, and what gives it status and opportunity to run roughshod over the educational lives and futures of 6 million kids in California, then shame on us,” Romero told the Wall Street Journal’s Allysia Finley.
Even the San Francisco Chronicle, which opposed Prop. 32 in an editorial, grasps the heart of the problem: “There is no question that organized labor has a powerful grip on the state Capitol, and that works against the public’s interest on issues such as education reform, government efficiency and pension reform.”
Then why not take serious steps to loosen that grip? If California voters reject Prop. 32 and support Prop. 30, the unions will maintain their financial control over the political process, and all Californians will pay more to prop up the current dysfunctional system. And, no doubt, the same California voters will continue to tell pollsters how unhappy they are with the current state of affairs.
Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity; write to him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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