Special Interests vs. Fiscal Reform

It is impossible to easily summarize all of the efforts government worker unions have mounted in California to consolidate their power. But the efforts by these unions to disrupt reform initiative efforts, as well as undermine the initiative process itself, is worthy of special mention, and is the focus of this post.

As Californians realize that unions stand firmly opposed to reducing government worker pay and benefits as one way to reduce government deficits, and further realize that their elected officials are controlled by these unions and unable to enact reforms, the citizens initiative has become their tool of last resort. Across the state, grassroots organizations have mounted initiatives designed to reduce government expenditures – through banning Project Labor Agreements, or right-sizing government worker pensions, or through campaign finance reforms that target unions alongside large corporations. These measures constitute a profound threat to government union power.

Here are some of the ways government worker unions have spent millions of dollars over the past six months to fight reform through the initiative process:

In mid-July the SEIU created a “think before you ink” flyer filled with misinformation and distortions regarding a major threat to their power, the “Stop Special Interests” initiative that would ban corporations or unions from withholding money from paychecks to finance political activity. The flyer claims, for example, that “business donates more to politics than unions by a ratio of 15-1.” Actually in California the unions spend more than business on politics, especially at the local level. It further claims that the Stop Special Interests initiative is funded by “out of state billionaires,” yet not one out of state donation had been received according to this campaign’s June 30th financial statement posted on the California Secretary of State’s website. And finally, the flyer claims that the Stop Special Interests initiative will “deny our membership the ability to voluntarily contribute to politics.” If you read the initiative, however, actually it will require voluntary contributions. Currently these political contributions are, if not forced, assessments that require a laborious “opt-out” process to avoid workers making payments to the unions via automatic deductions their paychecks.

In mid-July, the LA County Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, and the SEIU Local 1000 in Sacramento, along with others, created an 800 number for people to call and report signature gathering in process. Observers reported the unions were paying homeless people in LA and San Diego to do this. Then the unions would send a “truth squad” to block the signature table and intimidate both signers and gatherers. Sources at signature gathering firms reported that the harassment from these “blockers” has never been this organized or intense.

This year the unions have pushed at least four pieces of legislation to curb the initiative process:

ACA 6 – Prevents passage of initiatives that reduce tax revenues. According to bill sponsor Assemblyman Mike Gatto, ACA 6 “will require initiatives that spend money or create a new program or mandate to identify and specify the funding to pay for it.” The practical effect of this bill, which would require language in any initiative specifying a new source of tax revenue for any costs attendant to enforcing the initiative in excess of $5.0 million, would be to only allow initiatives onto the ballot that raised taxes. This law would leave the decision regarding the financial impact of a proposed initiative in the hands of the State Dept. of Finance, where they could anoint bills they favored, and subject the ones they don’t like to a slanted financial analysis, or, worse, delayed indefinitely in the limbo of an ongoing analysis. Still active.

SB 448 – Forces circulators of initiative petitions to wear a button that tells whether they are paid or volunteer. Sponsored by Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, SB 448 would require that people who collect signatures wear signs around their necks announcing whether they are a paid signature-gatherer or a volunteer signature-gatherer, and whether they are registered to vote. Vetoed by Gov. Brown.

SB 168 – Bans ballot committees and individuals from paying people who circulate petitions for initiatives, referendums and recalls on the basis of the number of signatures they collect. Instead of paying signature gatherers based on their productivity, these workers would be required to receive an hourly wage. Equally troubling, they would be required to be hired as full time employees – an utterly impractical approach to what is seasonal, temporary work. The practical effect of this law will be to double or triple the cost of putting an initiative onto the ballot, which drives out the grassroots organizations but leaves intact the prerogatives of powerful special interests. Vetoed by Gov. Brown.

ACA 10 – Would allow the Legislature to amend or repeal voter-initiated statutes after they have been in effect for four years. Again, the practical effect of this would be to force grassroots taxfighting organizations back into expensive initiative battles every four years, making it very difficult to implement lasting reforms. Still active.

Beginning in July and running through most of August, they have ran millions in radio ads across the state suggesting that signing a petition puts the signer at risk of identity theft.

There may be evidence that registered voters opposed to reform initiatives were encouraged to sign petitions multiple times in an attempt to disrupt the gathering of a sufficient number of verified individual signatures. According to these anonymous sources, in LA County, in random checks, petitions were signed by the same person four and even five times. According to anonymous sources elsewhere in California,  sets of petitions were found that had been signed by the same person as many as fifteen times. To find widespread examples of this during internal verification, is, if not the result of an organized effort to defraud the process with duplicates, something nearly impossible to occur randomly.

San Diego has had particularly bad experiences with aggressive union blocking efforts. The YouTube link references a 2 hour upcoming (Sept. 15) prime time television expose on the union war against petition gatherers in San Diego. Not included on this video are reports that signature gatherers are being followed home by union operatives after they’re finished working, and being harassed in their own driveways.

This bill, SB 202, was gutted and amended late at night on Sept. 8th, the 2nd to last day of the legislative session for 2011. In its new form, it will prohibit initiatives from being on any statewide ballot other than November of every even numbered year. It appears to be a direct response to this – the Stop Special Interest Money Act – a statewide reform initiative for which the proponents are on the verge of completing signature gathering and filing for appearance on the June 2012 ballot. Governor Brown has 30 days to either sign or veto this.

What is especially disappointing about these efforts is that they are disrupting the ability of voters to even have a choice. Targeting the initiative process is an attack on one of California’s most resilient institutions, direct democracy. And it is quite ironic that these government worker unions characterize the grassroots organizations who are fighting desperately, with extremely limited funds, as backed by “billionaires and big corporations.” The money, as well as the institutional power, is clearly on the side of these government worker unions, since in these many counterattacks they clearly have spent many times what the reformers have managed to spend.

1 reply
  1. Charles says:

    No one in State service needs to worry. Calpers doesn’t allow pension spiking. Their benefits have been the same since 1999. They have been paying as required by law since the 30’s.

    How about making California pay their share? Then there would be nothing to complain about. The State’s share would still be about 18%. The same as it was in 1969.

    “This too shall pass.”

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