Labor holds lead on payroll power

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 4A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012 - 12:44 am

A controversial ballot measure that would have forced unions to scramble for political money was too close to call several hours after the polls closed on Tuesday.

State tallies showed Proposition 32 losing 51 percent to 49 percent, but the figures didn't include votes from the Bay Area and Los Angeles, which tend to lean pro-union.

"When you're facing the most well-funded powerful interest in the state," said Proposition 32 spokesman Jake Suski late Tuesday, "it's a tough climb."

Brian Brokaw, speaking for the No on 32 campaign, said his side remained "very confident" that voters have rejected the measure. Proposition 32 would ban unions and corporations from contributing directly to political candidates and candidate-controlled committees.

That would funnel more corporate money into independently operated campaigns, which the courts have said can spend and receive unlimited sums.

Unions wouldn't have the resources to contribute to independent campaigns, however, because Proposition 32 also bans payroll-deducted money from state and local politics. That would leave organized labor in California scrambling for money, since unions here get all of their political funds from dues taken from members' paychecks.

Although the measure's payroll-deduction language also applies to corporations, it wouldn't affect them as much because they collect political cash from executive contributions and by tapping company resources. Proposition 32 doesn't prohibit fundraising from those sources.

Unions made defeating the measure their top priority. They raised at least $66 million for No on 32 efforts, framing it as part of a larger war on the working class. In radio ads, TV spots and mailers, labor groups tied the measure to Wall Street, Big Oil and deep-pocketed conservative movements, casting the vote as pivotal in labor history.

Many of the business interests behind Proposition 32 had put similar measures on statewide ballots in 1998 and 2005. They failed under a barrage of union money that seven years ago outspent them by a ratio of 10-to-1.

The latest measure started with a bigger lead than those earlier versions, said Republican strategist Stan Devereux. He wasn't surprised at Tuesday night's too-close-to-call gap, especially without complete tallies from California's most populous regions. Supporters argued that while the measure wouldn't solve all of California's political-influence woes, it was a good start and went as far as the current law allows to reform campaign financing.

A handful of wealthy individuals and two out-of-state nonprofits put up about $60 million, with most of the money going to a campaign committee that also fought Gov. Jerry Brown's tax measure, Proposition 30.

Republican activist Charles Munger Jr. gave $35 million to a Yes on 32, No on 30 committee set up by business interests, according to records filed with the state.

An obscure Arizona nonprofit also contributed $11 million to the independent business committee. Brown blasted the group for failing to identify who gave the money.

After a brief but intense court battle, the state's campaign-finance watchdog, the Fair Political Practices Commission, audited the contribution. Commission Chairwoman Ann Ravel said the money was "laundered" for two other obscure nonprofit groups that don't have to disclose donors.

Propositions 32 and 30 undoubtedly split the resources of opponents and proponents of both measures. If Proposition 32 hadn't been on the ballot, unions could have spent more on Brown's tax measure and business interests could have given more to fight it – or vice versa.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Jon Ortiz

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