Excerpted from the Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2005
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made two big announcements at last month’s Republican state convention. The first was that he will seek a second term in 2006; the second was a formal endorsement of Proposition 75, a ballot measure in the November 8 special election that would affect how public-sector unions can spend members’ dues. The second is more important to the state’s long-run future. Mr. Schwarzenegger’s goals as governor include shaking up Sacramento, where an intransigent legislature beholden to special interests had turned the state into an economic basket case. Arnold does have something to show for his efforts to date, insofar as the fiscal bleeding seems to have stopped. California’s credit rating is out of the gutter, and the economy has created a quarter-million new jobs in the past year.
Still, important reforms remain unaddressed, and the passage of Proposition 75, also known as “paycheck protection,” would go a long way toward ending California politics-as-usual. By forcing public-sector unions to get written permission from employees before using involuntary dues for political purposes, Proposition 75 has the potential to significantly reduce the political influence of the state’s quintessential special interest.
Former Governor Jerry Brown gave public employees the right to collectively bargain back in the 1970s, and now their interests lie directly in their ability to tap into the public fisc through higher salaries, better benefits and larger pensions. “The unions have essentially bought and paid for the California legislature,” says Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, an advocacy group.
“I think that that was one of the reasons Gray Davis was recalled,” Mr. Coupal adds. “He accepted a $500,000 contribution from the prison guards union immediately before signing a massive increase in prison guard benefits. Their union representative even went so far as to make the connection publicly, essentially saying that ‘yes, he gave us the benefits because we paid him the money.'”
In an independent Field Poll conducted last month, 55% of likely voters expressed support for Proposition 75. But when the measure was on the ballot for the first time back in 1998, it also started out high in the polls, only to eventually be defeated after a $30 million campaign of disinformation bankrolled by the unions. Now that Mr. Schwarzenegger is officially backing the measure, union leaders are preparing for another all-out attack.
The Sacramento Bee reports that unions “are muscling up as never before” to protect their interests. In the 2004 election cycle California’s public-sector unions spent $38 million on behalf of candidates and ballot initiatives — 89% of which went to Democrats, by the way. Since July of this year, reports the Bee, “The California Teachers Association — which has pledged to spend $50 million fighting the governor’s agenda — alone has accounted for $27 million in direct contributions” to political committees opposing the special-election initiatives.
Everyone involved knows the stakes. Where paycheck protection has been instituted, public employees have expressed little interest in having their mandatory dues spent on political activities. Paycheck protection passed by initiative in Washington state in 1992. Subsequently, according to a study by the Olympia-based Evergreen Freedom Foundation, “over 90% of Washington state public school teachers declined to contribute to their union’s political action committee.” And after the Utah legislature passed a similar measure in 2001, nearly 95% of public school teachers opted out of their union’s political fund.
One big question is whether business is going to get involved this time. In 1998, it sat on the sidelines and watched paycheck protection lose 53% to 47%. Now business has another chance to break the iron triangle of public-employee unions, liberal interest groups and state legislators that is slowly turning California’s economy into France and Germany. There’s no more important election this year.