Dan Walters

Dan Walters: A mushroom bill on home care workers may backfire

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

At any given moment, dozens of comatose bills float around the Legislature – vessels to be filled with whatever the powers-that-be want to enact quickly and semi-clandestinely.

A journalistic wag once dubbed them “mushroom bills” because they grow in the dark, nurtured in excrement, and sprout just long enough to be passed, sometimes within hours.

They often pop up as “trailer bills,” so named because they supposedly implement the state budget. But it’s a common – albeit unethical – practice for legislators to load them up with stuff that has little or nothing to do with the budget and get them passed quickly before opposition develops.

This year was no exception as new issues surfaced in budget trailer bills.

One, giving the state Coastal Commission the power to levy fines, had been rejected by the Assembly but was enacted anyway by making it part of a trailer bill. Another – clearly a sop to the California Teachers Association – limits financial reserves in local school districts, thereby putting more money on the table for negotiations.

And so forth.

On June 15, 1999, a comatose bill was amended to declare that hundreds of thousands of hitherto independent home care aides for the aged and infirm in a program called In-Home Supportive Services would become public employees and thereby subject to union representation.

The Senate passed it that day – without hearings or even an analysis of its provisions – and the Assembly followed suit the next day, sending it to then-Gov. Gray Davis, who had been elected governor eight months earlier with strong union support, for a signature.

It was the biggest victory for union expansion in California since public employees gained collective bargaining rights a quarter-century earlier, and it mirrored union-sponsored decrees for IHSS workers in other states.

One was in Illinois, where an IHSS worker, with support from an anti-union organization, challenged having to pay union dues. Years later, having wound its way through the courts, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court declared last week that IHSS workers cannot be compelled to pay union dues because they are not truly public employees since they are chosen by the people they assist, most often relatives, with cleaning, cooking and other household chores.

It was a fairly narrow decision that may – or may not – lead to a broader ban on “agency shop” dues non-members must pay to unions. But even if doesn’t expand, it’s a potentially huge financial blow to the unions – the Service Employees International Union particularly – that rely on decrees from friendly politicians to build their memberships rather than old-fashioned persuasion.

And it’s a cautionary footnote about mushroom bills sprouting in the night.