The best two things that could happen in American politics would be cutting or removing altogether the corporate and labor union campaign contributions that are the most significant sources of corruption in both national and state government.
U.S. Supreme Court decisions that hold donations by these wealthy special interests are protected by the Constitution’s free speech guarantees dictate that anyone wanting to diminish their influence over politicians must pursue something other than an outright ban, or even a cap on the special interest spending.
In California, that effort last year took the form of an Assembly bill that would have forced corporations to report all their political activities and spending to shareholders, who could then have nixed a proportionate amount of that spending equal to their ownership stakes.
In short, if a shareholder owned 1 percent of all stock in the Exxon-Mobil oil company, he or she could demand the company cut its political spending by 1 percent.
It’s an idea very similar to what outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to impose on labor unions via the Proposition 75 ballot initiative in a 2005 special election. Back then, when Schwarzenegger was a political rookie still willing to take on major special interests, he tried to allow public employee union members to opt in or out of letting their dues be used for political contributions.
“There’s a fundamental unfairness in California,” went the ballot argument for the measure, which failed. “Hundreds of thousands of public employee union members are forced to contribute their hard-earned money to political candidates or issues they may oppose.”
There was truth to that argument, but it lacked balance. The clear-cut aim of Proposition 75 was to truncate the influence of the California Teachers Association and other unions representing prison guards, nurses, police and firefighters, which usually are leading contributors to Democratic candidates.
Just last fall, public employee unions were among those that funded independent expenditure radio and television commercials backing Democrat Jerry Brown in his run for governor at a time when he didn’t want to touch his own campaign war chest.
No doubt, Republicans like the signers of the pro-75 ballot argument would have loved to stymie that.
But this column and others argued in 2005 that it would be unfair to cut union influence while leaving corporations unfettered.
Former Democratic Assemblyman Pedro Nava of Santa Barbara, a defeated candidate for attorney general last year, picked up on that contention with the proposal to let shareholders cut corporate contributions. Given the fact that corporations provide a large part of Republican campaign funds in California, including support for numerous independent expenditure committees, the presumption was that the Democratic-controlled Legislature would pass this easily.
But it died in the state Senate’s Banking and Finance Committee, where four Democrats voted for the measure, when five votes were needed to move it along. Committee chairman Ron Calderon of Montebello, a Democrat, was one of three no votes (along with two Republicans), while Democrats Lou Correa of Orange County and Alex Padilla of Los Angeles did not vote.
“A corporation’s treasury shouldn’t be used to bankroll the political agendas of a few members of its board,” said Pedro Morillas, a consumer advocate for the California Public Interest Research Group, paraphrasing a bit from the ballot argument for Proposition 75.
If Californians are really interested in cleaning up this state’s politics and ending what many believe is governmental dysfunction, measures like both Proposition 75 and Nava’s defeated measure will be needed.
It would be virtually impossible to put both union member and shareholder vetoes of using their money for politics into a single ballot initiative because of laws that require propositions to cover only one subject area each.
But there’s nothing to prevent legislators from writing and passing companion bills accomplishing both aims. Nothing, that is, except pressure from the labor union and corporate interests who all too often call the shots in both Sacramento and Washington, D.C.