In a recent op-ed in the Sacramento Bee, conservative columnist Margaret Bengs revealed the true motivation behind Proposition 32, this year's most deceptive ballot initiative — a desire to eliminate entirely organized labor's voice in California politics.
Bengs railed against political spending by the California Teachers Association, and was particularly offended that, in addition to protecting public education, the teachers union opposed Prop 8, the state's anti-same-sex-marriage measure. "It is well known," Bengs proclaimed, that the CTA and other public sector unions "have an inordinate control over California government."
The problem with Bengs' column is that, like Prop 32 itself, it provides a fundamentally misleading message. In reality, our elections are dominated by wealthy business interests and by billionaires, not by unions, and Prop 32 would make that situation much worse.
So who really dominates California politics, and how would Prop 32 change that?
Data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Investigative Reporting demonstrates that the business interests and billionaires who would benefit most from Prop 32 already vastly outspend labor unions in the state and spend overwhelmingly on measures promoting their own self-interests.
Between 2001 and 2011, business interests spent more than $700 million on initiatives, candidates, and parties, while labor unions contributed well under half that amount — just over $284 million. Wealthy individuals, including many billionaires, bankrolled another $231 million. Under Prop 32, neither the spending by business interests nor wealthy individuals would face any meaningful limitations — indeed, they would likely explode — while that of unions would be all but eliminated.
Among business interests, the biggest spenders in California include Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) of Washington, DC, with more than $71 million; PG&E, with more than $66 million; the Chevron Corporation, with more than $50 million; Aera Energy of Bakersfield, with more than $33 million; and the tobacco giants, Virginia-based Philip Morris and North Carolina-based R.J. Reynolds, with a combined total of $65 million. Other major players include the California Association of Realtors, the California Building Industry Association, and the California Chamber of Commerce.
Much of this spending was on ballot initiatives designed to provide special breaks for corporations. Prop 32 would not fix that problem — its many exemptions mean that corporations would still spend a lot of money on campaigns and Super PACs. The only corporate spending prohibited by Prop 32 would be direct contributions to candidates and parties. Corporations would still be perfectly free to spend tens of millions of dollars — and more — on ballot measures (which is, for example, what PG&E spent most of its money on) and on independent expenditures to get the politicians they like elected.
Then there's the election spending by California's wealthiest individuals. Over the past decade, the top fifty individual contributors to initiatives, candidates, and parties spent more than $231 million. Prop 32 would have no impact on spending by these billionaires; in fact, their already considerable influence would likely increase significantly.
Two of the top three billionaire spenders in California — former Univision chairman and CEO Jerry Perenchio and Charles Munger Jr., a wealthy Palo Alto Republican activist and son of Berkshire Hathaway billionaire Charles Munger — have together spent more than $30 million in the past decade, and are major contributors to the Prop 32 campaign. The last thing California needs is a measure that would increase the ability of billionaires, who are actively seeking to silence the voices of schoolteachers, firefighters, and nurses, to dominate our politics.
The Center for Investigative Reporting's figures also demonstrate that unions are major players in California politics. The two largest players, the California Teachers Association and the State Council of the Service Employees International Union, together accounted for $168 million in spending, well over half of labor's total political expenditures.
The biggest single contributor, the teachers union, has spent heavily to protect funding for K-12 public education and to limit class sizes for California students — not for corporate tax breaks. Prop 32's restrictions against spending through payroll deductions — which is how unions raise money for political campaigns — would virtually eliminate labor's voice. Labor would technically still be able to participate in independent expenditures and ballot measures, but the payroll prohibition would decimate unions' ability to raise funds for those purposes. Unions depend on payroll deduction; corporations and billionaires do not.
If Prop 32 were to pass, it would slash spending in support of public education and safety, while encouraging massive contributions by tobacco, pharmaceutical, and real estate giants. And we would soon see numerous state and local ballot measures targeting wage-and-hours laws, paid sick leave, health and safety provisions, and other essential protections.
Under Prop 32, the wealthy business interests and individuals who have spent almost a billion dollars over the past decade would wield even more power in Sacramento, while ordinary Californians would be stripped of an effective voice. It is no wonder that its principal backers are card-carrying members of the One Percent, while the nation's leading good governance groups unequivocally oppose this cynical effort at deception.
Prop 32 is the polar opposite of even-handed campaign finance reform. It would turn California elections into Citizens United on steroids.