The latest initiative to qualify for the 2012 ballot is thick with the earnest rhetoric of white-hat-wearing good government reformers. It's also dripping with cynicism.
This may come as a shock, but the "Stop Special Interest Money Now Act" won't do anything of the kind at least not in any way that is balanced. It certainly won't prevent one-percenters from getting their two cents in, or their $2 million.
The initiative is the brainchild of Orange County Republicans, was written by a partner in the law firm that represents the California Republican Party, and is being bankrolled by wealthy Republicans.
The preamble reads as if it had been penned by a Common Cause reformer: "Every year, corporations and unions contribute millions of dollars to politicians, and the public interest is buried beneath the mountain of special-interest spending."
And this: "These contributions yield special tax breaks and public contracts for big business, costly government programs that enrich private labor unions, and unsustainable pensions, benefits, and salaries for public employee union members, all at the expense of California taxpayers."
The initiative is a remake of so-called "paycheck protection" measures rejected by voters in 1998 and 2005. While those propositions were direct attacks on labor's political fundraising, the new version tries to be clever, purporting to restrict corporate money as well. In fact, it would gut only one side's ability to play in politics organized labor.
"Every time they do it, they try to get a little cuter," said Dave Low, who is executive director of the California School Employees Association and will help lead the campaign against it.
It's early to write about initiatives that will be on the November 2012 ballot. But the fight over this initiative could shape the election season to come. More than taxes, pensions or control of the Legislature, this initiative's defeat will be California labor's No. 1 priority.
Labor leaders had this measure in mind when they prevailed upon Gov. Jerry Brown to sign legislation pushing initiatives to the November ballot. They assume the makeup of the November electorate will be less inclined to vote for this measure.
In 2005, labor spent almost $28 million to defeat the paycheck protection initiative. That's a starting point for spending on this new initiative, and it's easy to see why.
The initiative would bar unions from using automatic withdrawals from members' paychecks to raise money for political activity. Instead, labor would need to persuade members to write checks or make transfers from their bank accounts, an obstacle that would be difficult to overcome.
The initiative would bar direct contributions to officeholders and candidates by corporations and unions, assuming labor could raise money. But money players spend far more on initiatives and independent campaigns than on direct candidate donations.
Take a look at three corporations: cigarette maker Altria, Chevron and AT&T. They spent a combined $19.4 million on California politics in 2010 and 2011, according to data compiled by the private ElectionTrack website.
Those corporations gave $2.7 million to candidates. The other $16.7 million went to ballot measures, independent expenditures and political parties.
Altria, in particular, gives modestly to politicians, partly because many officeholders view tobacco money as politically toxic.
Altria has spent no less than $51.8 million on California campaigns since 2000. Of that, $48.3 million went to ballot measures, independent campaigns and parties, with the remaining $3.5 million going to candidates and incumbents.
The same is true for labor. The California Teachers Association has spent at least $7.4 million since 2010 on campaigns, according to ElectionTrack. Of that, $6.9 million went to ballot measures and independent campaigns.
Newport Beach attorney Michael Capaldi, one of the main proponents of the measure, told me he adheres to the libertarian philosophy and opposes regulation and government interference.
To my simple mind, there is an inconsistency between that view and any effort to further regulate campaign money. It's especially odd, given recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions hailed by conservatives striking down limits on campaign spending.
"In a perfect world, this wouldn't be needed," Capaldi told me. "But it is so far beyond debate that special interests control Sacramento."
There are interests and then there are interests. On its website, Capaldi's law firm makes note of his clout: "As an opinion leader and chairman emeritus of the Lincoln Club of Orange County, he has had a major influence in Orange County, Sacramento, and Washington, D.C." That hardly sounds like Mr. Smith.
"Stop Special Interest Money Now Act" would stop labor money. But don't expect it to stop corporate money. Corporations wouldn't be able to give directly to candidates. But they could spend freely on independent campaigns and initiatives, soiling this white hat with oil and leaving it with cigarette burns.