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SPECIAL ELECTION

A blow to unions might not hurt

October 30, 2005|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a senior scholar in the School of Policy, Planning and Development at USC, and a political analyst for KNBC-TV.

WOULD passage of Proposition 75 be a Halloween-like nightmare for the Democrats? Perhaps not.

Democratic officeholders are the main recipients of public employee union largesse in California. Many see their political fate inextricably tied to Proposition 75, which would prohibit these unions from using a member's dues for political purposes unless that member annually gives his or her written permission to do so.

The unions know what they'll be facing if the measure passes. They contend that it is a head-on attempt by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, no friend of unions, and his business allies to cripple their political clout. Business heavily outspends labor in California. In 2004, business interests spent almost $47 million on state candidates, while unions spent roughly $13 million, according to the Institute on Money in State Politics.

Unions certainly don't lack influence. Bob Stern of the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies says public sector unions "have veto power over bills." There, Schwarzenegger and the public employee unions have something in common.

Diluting labor's legislative clout could liberate legislators to bargain on their terms, to make policy unencumbered by pressure to pay off political debts. Greater distance between labor and lawmakers could enable Democrats -- indeed, legislators in general -- to challenge voters' perceptions that Sacramento is too beholden to special interests. The concerns of average Californians might even take center stage.

Schwarzenegger has long complained that Democratic legislators are in thrall to public employee unions. There is some truth to that.

In part, voters rebelled against Gray Davis in the 2003 recall election because the former governor seemed to spend all his time ardently pursuing political money from labor and other interests.

Five years earlier, labor kept Davis breathing when he faced two millionaire opponents in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. As governor, he signed into law a slew of union-backed measures, including bills boosting pension benefits for retired workers, granting binding arbitration rights to police and firefighters and increasing education funding.

In 2001, with California facing a budget deficit, the Legislature and Davis approved big pay raises for the politically dominant prison guards.

Two years later, public employee unions spent roughly $26 million to fight Davis' recall.

If Proposition 75 passes, less union money might be available for negative advertising. Nevertheless, loosening the money ties between unions and Democrats could benefit the party's candidates, particularly among swing voters.

A Field Poll taken last month showed 55% of likely voters supporting Proposition 75, while 32% opposed it. Republicans were overwhelmingly in favor -- 71% to 22%. But a more recent Public Policy Institute of California poll had 46% approving and 46% disapproving the measure.

The Democrats' fealty to public employee unions can sometimes create unwelcome tensions with building trades unions, local governments and moderate business types. A Proposition 75 victory could give Democrats new freedom to deal independently on important policy issues -- and maybe even pass an honest budget on time.

Proposition 75 may not turn out to be the union tamer its proponents say it will be. Employees who don't want their dues used for political purposes can opt out now. It's reasonable to assume that those who want them to go to politics will opt in. And just as political consultants learned that petitions distributed online are handy tools to qualify ballot initiatives, union leaders will find a way to use the Internet to make permission forms easily accessible.

There may even be a major loophole in the proposition: Issue advocacy is OK as long as it doesn't tout a specific election result. (Think "Swift boats.")

California is still very much a blue state. Whether or not Proposition 75 passes, Democrats will still run the Legislature. But they would have to work a little harder at it if voters approve the measure. Next year, they may need to knock on a lot of new doors when they head out for "Trick or Treat."

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