Sacramento — For Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Proposition 75 was akin to Frankenstein's monster. He created it, could not control it and was ruined by it -- at least his "reform" package was destroyed.
The so-called paycheck protection initiative galvanized public employee unions into an all-out war against the governor and his reforms. Unions used it as a smoking gun for their claims that the governor's real agenda was a partisan power play aimed at weakening his adversaries.
Nevertheless, Prop. 75 did come the closest of any proposition to passing in the special election, losing by seven points.
Now, the nurturer of Prop. 75, longtime anti-tax activist Lewis Uhler, is planning to create another version of the monster for the November 2006 ballot.
Unlike Prop. 75, which would have required public employee unions to obtain annual written permission from members to spend their dues on politics, the reincarnated version will attack unions from a different angle.
It will be modeled after a Utah law called the "voluntary contributions act." That law forbids public employee unions from spending any dues on politics. All politicking must be funded through a political action committee. And governments are prohibited from collecting PAC money with payroll deductions.
"I'm not at all convinced that we as taxpayers are responsible for picking up the cost of union political fundraising," asserts Uhler, president of the National Tax Limitation Committee, which he says has 100,000 dues-paying members.
"What is he smoking?" asks Democratic consultant Gale Kaufman, who coordinated the unions' victory over Schwarzenegger's ballot measures. "They're out of their minds. What's that about?"
For one, "it's a cleaner, simpler approach," says Ron Nehring, another anti-tax activist, state GOP vice chairman and longtime crusader for restricting political use of union dues.
The Utah law, Nehring notes, eliminates the confusing argument over whether public employees already have the right to forbid payroll deductions for political activities. (The answer is \o7yes, they do, but\f7.... We'll not rehash that here.)
"With that kind of talk, it just strengthens the unions' alliance and further alienates public safety members -- police, firefighters, prison guards -- from Republicans," says consultant Ray McNally. He's a longtime GOP strategist who, uniquely, works for the prison guards union and produced some bruising anti-Schwarzenegger TV ads this year.
The entire special election, of course, became a destructive monster for the governor. But at least he could have controlled the election by canceling it. He couldn't cancel Prop. 75. Once it qualified for the ballot, it couldn't be taken off. And the governor had become too weak to control its fate.
Although Uhler was the official sponsor, Schwarzenegger gave life to the initiative by covertly authorizing his political financiers to fund its signature-gathering. His purpose was political, not ideological. He wanted to use the measure as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Democrats over his "reform" package.
He offered to remain neutral on Prop. 75 as part of a bipartisan deal on spending, redistricting and teacher tenure -- and threatened to fight for Prop. 75 if negotiations collapsed.
But the initiative early on had so infuriated the unions that they united in an all-out attack on the governor, pummeling his popularity. They were also irate about other ballot proposals -- and the governor's broken promise on school funding -- but Prop. 75 was especially repugnant.
When the governor's popularity plunged -- because of other blunders as well -- the Prop. 75 bargaining chip became worthless.
Even if he had opposed Prop. 75, generating a GOP firestorm, Schwarzenegger no longer had the power of public persuasion to kill it. Unions still would have needed to spend many millions fighting the measure. With nothing to bargain over on Prop. 75, Democrats had little incentive to compromise on a total package.
"Any deal that didn't include making 75 go away would have been impossible to sell to our [union] allies and caucus," says a Democratic insider.
Moreover, says opposition strategist Kaufman, "Arnold did us a favor by endorsing 75 and saying it was his. It was the biggest mistake they made."
It was easy then to wrap an ugly Schwarzenegger ribbon around the entire package.
McNally adds: "They were too cute by half. By putting Prop. 75 on the ballot, they thought it would bring everybody to the table. What it did was drive everybody to the barricades."
Anti-union measures have historically hurt their Republican champions in California.
The sharpest-ever political shift occurred in 1958, largely because of a "right to work" initiative that would have outlawed the union shop. It was rejected and Democrat Pat Brown was elected -- both in landslides -- while Democrats drove Republicans from their historic control of the Legislature.
In 1998, a Republican-inspired "paycheck protection" initiative hitting both the public and private sectors rallied unions and helped elect their ally, Gray Davis, governor.
Uhler now has had two failed ventures with governors and initiatives. Both governors wrapped themselves around
his initiatives, smothered the measures and tripped all over them. Long before Schwarzenegger, there was Ronald Reagan with a tax-and-spending limit in 1973.
So one more lesson from Nov. 8: Uhler and Schwarzenegger will both be better off next year -- when the governor is running for reelection -- if they don't team up to create another "son of 75" monster.
George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.