It’s time at long last to hold both big labor unions and big corporations to one of the almost unnoticed commitments both sides made in their big initiative battles of the last two years.
Back in 2005, when big business – personified by the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Manufacturers and Technology Assn. and other trade groups – backed a so-called “paycheck protection” measure, their hope was to diminish labor unions as a political force by making it difficult for them to raise money from their members.
The unions, especially the California Nurses Assn., vowed to seek payback a year later – last month – via an initiative aiming to defang big business as a potent political force. Their effort took the form of Proposition 89, which proposed public financing of campaigns and sought to cap donations to candidates at $7,500 and contributions to political parties at $15,000. It also would limit donations to initiative campaigns to $10,000.
Either of these propositions would have caused big change. This is a state where labor unions spent more than $40 million to beat back some of last year’s initiatives and one whose governor in just three years has taken more than $180 million from oil companies, developers, natural gas suppliers, chemical companies, car dealers and a myriad of others affected every day by state policy.
During both campaigns, each side correctly claimed the other’s proposal would tilt the political playing field. The 2005 Proposition 75 would have forced labor unions to get signatures every year from members before dunning them for political cash, while allowing corporations to donate freely without ever consulting their shareholders.
This year’s Proposition 89 would have put the clamps on business contributions, while leaving labor unions pretty much free to do as they do now.
Either proposition alone would have tilted the political playing field to favor one side or the other in their ongoing series of major disputes over everything from workers compensation to nursing staff requirements and minimum wage laws.
But in the heat of both campaign seasons, sponsors of each measure insisted that if only someone would place a proposition on the ballot to take both sides out, they’d go for it in a minute. Fairness was all they were after, they said, piously.
Now that both sides have won, and both sides have also lost, each defeating the other’s pet law and by similar margins, it’s time to hold them to their politically correct promises.
In a state where voter turnout is perpetually depressed by the cynical perception that campaign contributions drive state policy – an impression fostered by both ex-Gov. Gray Davis and incumbent Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – how about taking both sides out?
It’s true, no one can deprive an individual of the right to spend however much he or she pleases to further their own candidacy. That’s why there were no limits last spring on what Democratic hopeful Steve Westly could spend on his run for governor, and no limits in earlier years on what the likes of Norton Simon, William Roth, Michael Huffington and Al Checchi spent seeking either the governor’s office or a seat in the U.S. Senate.
So far, no completely self-funded billionaire candidate has ever managed to buy either office. Schwarzenegger pledged to be such a candidate, and won, but only after he reneged on his promise and set fund-raising records. Billionaire Steve Poizner did win the insurance commissioner’s job this fall using $17 million that came mostly from his own pocket.
But putting aside rich folks and their Constitutional right to spend as much as they like, it’s time California took the special interests out of politics.
How about a measure requiring both annual labor union checkoffs for political donations and corporate canvassing of shareholders for permission to make donations and guidance on where to put them. This measure should also limit what any type of business, individual, association or labor group can give to candidates and what they can donate to political parties, which now essentially funnel the money to candidates.
Such a law must also limit how much so-called “independent expenditure” committees can help candidates, and how much anyone can donate to push or oppose ballot propositions.
Now balance these takeaways with public financing, a fund of about $200 million per year – the sum called for in the defeated Proposition 89. Make this money available to candidates or causes that demonstrate significant public support via large numbers of small $5 donations, and maybe elections could be decided on the merits of candidates and initiatives, rather than by cash on hand.
In a state where the campaign with the most money wins more than 80 percent of the time, that might bring politics back to the people and get them involved again. Fail to do this, and voter turnout will continue languishing below 50 percent of eligible voters indefinitely, with all the cynicism and distrust that brings.