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  • RENÉE C. BYER / rbyer@sacbee.com

    Janitors stage a union protest at the Capitol in May. Organized labor faces growing challenges to its power in California, but Gov. Jerry Brown will need union help to fund the campaign for his November tax initiative.

  • John Hart / Wisconsin State Journal

    Supporters of a recall effort against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker sing a solidarity song Tuesday as early results pointed to Walker's ultimate victory.

  • WISCONSIN GOV. SCOTT WALKER

    On immigration: Walker has said the current immigration system is broken and supports a bipartisan approach to providing people living here illegally some kind of provisional status to live in the country, but not necessarily citizenship. He said in February that people waiting to get citizenship should have priority and others need to have a legal pathway to live here legally. He has not commented directly on the bill pending in Congress.
    On gay marriage: Walker has supported Wisconsin’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, passed in 2006.

  • Gov. Jerry Brown

  • Dan Morain

Dan Morain: The heat is on Jerry Brown and the Democrats

Published: Sunday, Jun. 10, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jul. 2, 2013 - 9:13 am

In this state where Democrats control virtually all that happens in the Capitol, the pressure is on. At least, it should be.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature faces a deadline Friday for approving a budget, one that's balanced.

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislators are promising to follow that with legislation that actually curtails the cost of public pensions. If they stumble, voters will be even more disgusted come November. That wouldn't be pretty.

Brown is betting his governorship on a November initiative that he says would fix the perennial budget debacle by raising taxes by $8 billion. If the initiative fails, he would have to preside over yet deeper cuts to health care, environmental programs, schools and universities.

To help fund the campaign, Brown needs the help of organized labor. But unions will be busy trying to kill a separate initiative promoted by conservatives that would strip them of their ability to raise and spend money on campaigns. A failure to produce a balanced budget and pension overhaul would not bode well for labor's chances of defeating the initiative.

"We know we need to get pension reform before the end of the session," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg told me last week.

The electorate doesn't believe a word of it. A Field Poll last week showed what a dim view voters have of Sacramento, with a mere 19 percent saying they approve of the Legislature's performance. The governor's standing continues to sink.

Then there's the matter of last week's election. Not good for Democrats. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker crushed a labor-backed recall, and public employee unions were trounced in ballot fights over pension costs in San Diego and the liberal city of San Jose.

There's danger in reading too much into Tuesday results. Wisconsin is a long way from California, and Californians who vote in primaries tend to be hard-core partisans, a shrinking group.

In the fall, the electorate will be far larger and different. Twice as many voters will show up, and they will skew more heavily Democratic. President Barack Obama ought to win the state by 18 percentage points, maybe more.

Even so, some conservative activists are feeling bullish, although "bullish is a relative term" for a California conservative, noted one such individual, Jon Fleischman, publisher of the Flashreport blog.

First, there's the matter of money. Conservatives are hoping that the same rich donors who gave $30 million to Walker's campaign committee, and spent millions more on independent campaigns to defeat the Wisconsin recall, will spread some of that out here.

Almost all of the big money men showed up to defend Walker. Texas home builder Bob Perry, who helped fund the swift boat attack on John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race, gave $500,000 to the Walker campaign, data compiled by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign show.

Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who kept Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign afloat, gave $250,000. Groups that received funding from billionaire Kansas oilmen David and Charles Koch kicked in millions to fund independent campaigns that targeted the unions and defended Walker.

A new front in the proxy war over the power of public employee unions could open up in California. Anti-union conservatives have placed an initiative on the November ballot called the "Stop Special Interest Money Now Act," a gussied up name for the deceptive "paycheck protection" initiatives that voters rejected in 1998 and 2005.

Like the two others, the new initiative will be sold as a "reform" to rid special interest money from politics. Its target clearly is labor. The initiative would dry up labor money by requiring unions get pre-approval to use dues for political activity, while corporations could easily skirt restrictions.

The initiative would not curtail donations by insurance companies, among the largest donors to political campaigns, or to corporations that create limited liability corporations, as major pharmaceutical companies and others have done.

Corporations could spend unlimited sums on initiatives, as happened when cigarette companies shelled out more than $47 million in their effort to defeat the Proposition 29 tobacco tax. And they could spend freely on independent campaigns for and against candidates.

Some Democratic and Republican consultants believe the same money players who beat back the Walker recall will be emboldened by their success and will head west.

But there are good reasons for the billionaires not to play in California.

A $1 million check isn't what it used to be here; a week's worth of television time could cost $4 million this fall. That kind of money could actually make a difference in a presidential swing state.

Sal Russo, the Sacramento consultant who created the Tea Party Express campaign committee, barnstormed in Wisconsin last week rallying conservatives to oppose the Walker recall, then drove his brightly painted campaign bus to Michigan to gin up interest in that state's Senate race, before heading to Pennsylvania to endorse a congressional candidate.

There's a pattern. Russo focuses on swing states, not on his home state of California. In his view, big money players will do the same and bypass California.

"California is too tough," Russo said on a call from Pittsburgh. "There are more opportunities in the Midwest. There is more fruitful territory than California."

Whether or not California becomes a battleground over public employee unions in the fall, Democrats should be feeling pressure.

Two years ago, voters elected every Democrat who mattered, and then some, and halted the Republican wave that swept across the rest of the nation.

Democrats still go out of their way to blame Republicans for blocking tax increases. But Democrats have a virtual lock on power here. They can squander that power on trivial issues, or they can use it to start restoring some faith in government by balancing the budget and overhauling the pension system. They control their fate, and in many ways, the fate of the state of California.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Dan Morain, Senior editor



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