By John Logan
Cartoon by Richard Crowson
Every so often in California politics, a ballot measure comes along that is so deceptive, so fraudulent, that it almost takes one’s breath away. Not only is Prop. 32 (or “Stop Special Interest Money Now,” as its big-money funders call it) one such measure, it is a poster child for fraudulent ballot initiatives, the ultimate “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
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 individual 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.
Much of this spending spree 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 secret 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.
Prop. 32 masquerades an attempt at evenhanded campaign finance reform that would reduce the influence of powerful special interests in Sacramento. Few would argue with this laudable goal, but Prop. 32 would not only fail to achieve that goal, its special exemptions would increase the influence of billionaires and wealthy business interests, while silencing the voices of teachers, nurses, firefighters and law enforcement personnel. It is the precise opposite of genuine campaign finance reform, and would turn California politics into Citizens United on steroids.
In a deliberate effort to mislead voters, Prop. 32 promoters say that the measure treats corporations and unions equally. By prohibiting money collected by payroll deduction, Prop. 32 would all but eliminate unions’ political voice, but it places no meaningful limitations on spending by wealthy business interests. Unions rely on payroll deduction to raise funds for politics; corporations do not. The measure would prohibit direct donations to candidates and parties from corporate general funds, but this is not how most business interests exercise influence in Sacramento.
Prop. 32’s “restrictions” on corporate spending are a meaningless ruse.
Prop. 32 places no restrictions on political spending by billionaires. Two of the top three billionaire spenders in California politics over the past decade are major contributors to the Prop. 32 campaign, and would be exempt from its restrictions. Not content with buying influence in Sacramento for themselves, these super-wealthy individuals are seeking to silence the voices of working Californians.
Prop. 32’s principal backer is the ultraconservative Lincoln Club of Orange County. The Lincoln Club was a key player in the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which has opened the floodgates on special interest spending in federal elections. The Lincoln Club welcomed Citizens United as a victory for free speech, but now wants Californians to believe that it supports getting special interests out of Sacramento. Few groups have less credibility when it comes to campaign finance reform.
If Prop. 32 passes in November, right-wing activists will promote a tsunami of ballot initiatives in 2013 at the local level and in 2014 at the state level designed to drive down working conditions in both the public and private sectors. Lacking the ability to oppose these reactionary measures under the new election rules, California's workers could soon face some of the weakest labor standards in the country.
Prop. 32 is not campaign finance reform, but a billionaires’ bill of rights, one that would be a game-changer in California politics. When it comes to ballot initiatives, Prop. 32 is the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing.
CTA member John Logan is a professor and director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University.