Proposition 32, "Stop Special Interest Money," which pretends to be an evenhanded piece of campaign finance reform, isn't the first wolf in sheep's clothing on the California ballot. But it should still qualify as a classic. It's the kind of law that evenhandedly prohibits both the rich and the poor from sleeping under the bridge.
"Prop. 32 is a broad-based and fair solution," the Yes on 32 website says. "It addresses the special interests' control of government and returns power to the voters by limiting both corporate and union political giving."
If that's the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, why do California's two most respected good-government groups, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, oppose it?
What it is, at bottom, is yet another attempt to throttle the unions the third since 1996 this time including both those in the private and those in the public sector. But unlike its predecessors, both defeated at the polls, Proposition 32 comes wrapped in a shiny goo-goo package that pretends to restrict corporate and labor political influence equally.
It doesn't. Among other things, it prohibits unions and corporations from using payroll deductions for political purposes. But few if any corporations do that. Their political spending comes out of their business revenues.
The initiative, says the League, "is not what it seems. It does not take money out of politics because super PACs and independent expenditure committees are exempt from its controls. It is unfair and unbalanced, restricting unions while not stopping corporate special interests."
Put another way, it's an attempt hardly the first to stack the deck in favor of corporate interests and the increasingly powerful and unrestricted PACs that have become the biggest players in our politics.
But Proposition 32 is also a reminder that in this era when unions have become the leading whipping boys in our politics, even true-blue California has no special exemption, a fact that public-sector unions and their Democratic Party clients have been much too slow to understand.
For the past three decades, the California Teachers Association, California's largest teacher union, has been better known for its unwavering defense of rigid seniority rules and other troglodytic job protections than for vigorous leadership in improving public education.
For most of the past generation, the National Education Association, with which the CTA is affiliated, has behaved more like an old industrial union than the professional organization it claims to be. That reputation was reinforced again this week by the truly awful timing of the Chicago teachers strike.
But it's also true that in seeking generous pay for their members, the state's teacher unions have been the state's most vigorous advocates of increased school funding. And in a state that ranks among the bottom 10 in the nation in per-pupil spending, that should never be forgotten.
Since time immemorial, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the heavyweight union of prison guards, has muscled the state's criminal justice system and sentencing laws not for public safety, much less for the rehabilitation of inmates in the state's overcrowded prisons, but to drive up the pay, benefits and political clout of its members. It's largely because of that history that a federal court has ordered California to sharply reduce its prison population.
Once again, in this campaign, both sides warn against "the special interests," a phrase that almost always includes the "the" for generations the favorite bogeyman in our politics. At the top of their website, the proponents of Proposition 32 warn that "The special interests will stop at nothing to defeat this proposition." The opponents call it "The special exemptions act."
Among the proponents and major funders of the initiative: the California chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business; the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the California Republican Party, plus a long list of real estate developers, venture capitalists, hedge fund managers and various other multimillionaires.
On the opposing side, which has six or seven times as much money as the proponents, are the CTA, which at last count has kicked in upward of $16 million; the smaller California Federation of Teachers, which put in another $800,000; various entities of the SEIU, the state's service employees unions, $7 million; and the firefighters unions, $2.5 million.
Add contributions from a long list of other labor organizations school employees other than teachers, nurses, cops, municipal workers, California State University faculty members, administrative law judges, professional engineers, sheet metal workers and the opponents have close to $30 million.
That number provides yet another indication of the stakes and yet another example of how the initiative process has become a playpen for the rich. In fights like this, most of us teachers, nurses, real estate developers, lawyers, truck drivers, electricians, insurance brokers are part of some "special interest." If we really wanted to reduce the political influence of interest-group money say, though public financing of campaigns we could do it, but we don't.