In the heat of the 2008 battle over Proposition 8, the ballot measure that engraved the traditional definition of marriage in the state Constitution, I was taken aback one day to read that the California Teachers Association had just contributed $1 million to oppose the initiative.
I wondered how the CTA, which constantly claims that schools are broke, could afford $1 million to oppose a ballot measure that had nothing to do with education.
And whether, in a state where the majority of the electorate favored the measure, CTA was representing its members' views.
A National Public Radio analysis at the time, in fact, found that individual teachers, aides and counselors in the California public school system gave about $2 to support Proposition 8 for every $1 they gave to oppose it.
Yet CTA dues were used against the measure.
This is a core question at the heart of Proposition 32, the Stop Special Interest Money Act, on the ballot this November. Should automatic payroll deductions be used to support political causes and candidates that employees might oppose? Or should there be stronger protection for free speech rights?
It is well known that big public employee unions and other special interests have an inordinate control over California government, control that stymies badly needed reforms.
Of the $1 billion spent by the 15 biggest political financial players in California between 2000 and 2010, the two top political contributors were the CTA, at $211.9 million, and the California State Council of Service Employees, at $107.5 million, according to the Fair Political Practices Commission. The remainder included business groups, corporations and casino-owning Indian tribes.
"Every year, citizens see special interests pouring tens of millions of dollars into election campaigns and lobbying dwarfing the ability of average voters to influence important public policy decisions," the FPPC report stated.
Proposition 32 would prohibit unions and corporations from using payroll-deducted funds for political purposes. It permits voluntary employee contributions for such activities, if authorized yearly. The measure also forbids unions and corporations from contributing directly to candidates but does not curb contributions for independent expenditures protected by the Constitution. It does not affect political spending in federal campaigns.
"It goes as far as the U.S. Constitution allows to end special interest influence in state government," says retired California Supreme Court Justice John Arguelles, a supporter of the measure.
But opponents claim that Proposition 32 is not "fair and balanced," because the major change, the prohibition on collecting political funds through automatic payroll deductions, would affect mostly unions, not corporations, few of which use this process. Unions would need to persuade members to write checks, or authorize bank account transfers or credit card payments for political activities.
In unions such as the CTA, members can authorize political contributions by signing a form when they first join the union. This funding continues as long as they work, unless they later opt out. But a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Knox v. Service Employees International Union calls into question the use of opting-out procedures rather than opting in.
In this case, a group of 28,000 employees sued because the union had used their money to fight Proposition 75 on the California ballot in 2005, which also would have required unions to obtain employees' consent before obtaining funds for political purposes.
Requiring individuals to opt out rather than exempting them unless they opt in, the court stated, created "a risk that the fees" paid "will be used to further political and ideological ends with which they do not agree."
Proposition 32 has shortcomings. It seems that in an effort to earn voter support for the "paycheck protection," an effort that failed before with unions spending millions against it, proponents sought to apply reforms to corporations as well.
The measure's goal to curb big-money politics to give individual taxpayers and small businesses more of a voice is good.
But Proposition 32 does more rhetorically to level the playing field of financial power in Sacramento than it does in fact. Corporate and union contributions to candidates would be limited, but not to political action committees independent of the politicians. Also, some funding organizations could be exempt depending on how the term "corporation" is interpreted.
Unions have so far raised $16 million to oppose Proposition 32, once again using members' own money to defeat an effort to strengthen employee consent.
It's too bad that Proposition 32 didn't stick to this simple principle. By purporting to do more than it does, or perhaps could do, the measure may turn out to be too confusing to win voter support.