It was Lyndon Johnson who best understood that the key to political empowerment for the disenfranchised was to give them access to the electoral process. That's why he made passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 his top priority.
But it's doubtful he would think too kindly of a measure we might call the Rich Persons and Corporations Empowerment Act of 2012. During this election season, Californians undoubtedly will be hearing about it on TV and radio until their eardrums bleed. That's because it will be on the November ballot as Proposition 32, a wolf in sheep's clothing dressed up as the "Stop Special Interest Money Now Act."
In this state, we've come to expect ballot initiatives sponsored by business interests to be, essentially, frauds. But it's hard to conceive how one could be more fraudulent than Proposition 32. If there was any doubt left that the initiative process has been totally corrupted by big business and the wealthy, this should put it to rest for all time.
Proposition 32 is nothing but an attack by Republicans and conservatives on unions and their members. Two previous attempts by the same gang failed at the ballot box, in 1998 and 2005. What's new about this effort is that it's dressed up as a broad reform aimed at "special interests," and it's even more union-unfriendly than its predecessors.
We'll start by examining what Proposition 32 purports to do.
On the grounds that "special interests have too much power over government," the measure bans direct contributions to California candidates by corporations and labor unions. It prohibits the collection of "political funds" from corporate employees and union members via payroll deduction, even if the employee or member voluntarily approves. (That's more stringent than the previous versions, which merely required that union members give written permission for political expenditures once a year.) Political funds include money spent for or against a candidate or ballot measure or for a party or political action committee, or PAC.
Sounds pretty good so far, doesn't it? "It looks temptingly like reform," says Trudy Schafer, program director for the League of Women Voters of California. "But it's not."
That's because Proposition 32 bristles with enormous loopholes tailor-made for businesses and their wealthy backers. To begin with, it exempts such common business structures as LLCs, partnerships and real estate trusts. If you're a venture investor, land developer or law firm, Proposition 32 doesn't lay a finger on you.
The drafters, who include conservative attorneys Thomas Hiltachk and Michael Capaldi, know full well that payroll deductions are how unions get almost all of their funds, and businesses get almost none of theirs.
The infusion of big money into politics has become a more important issue since the Supreme Court's infamous 2010 Citizens United decision awarding free speech rights to corporations, as though they are people. The decision liberated corporations to contribute to electoral campaigns virtually without limitation. That has turbocharged fundraising by so-called super PACs such as Karl Rove's conservative American Crossroads, the Mitt Romney-supporting Restore Our Future, and the President Obama-supporting Priorities USA.
The Proposition 32 campaign says the measure is carefully crafted to comply with Citizens United, but if that's so, it's just another sign of how flawed and deplorable the Supreme Court ruling was. At the moment, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, business outspends organized labor 15 to 1.
Today, no big business needs to mulct its employees for piddling weekly deductions for its PAC, when it can shovel out by the trainload any money it has collected via the sale of goods and services. Some corporations do take PAC contributions from employees by payroll deductions, but it's typically a tiny proportion, mostly concentrated among careerist midlevel executives and above.
"When corporations can just write a check from their general treasury, the idea that this is a meaningful restriction is ridiculous," says Richard L. Hasen, an election and campaign law expert at UC Irvine. The share of corporate political spending coming from employee payroll deductions "has got to be a drop in the bucket, and putting it in there is just a fig leaf."
What about the Proposition 32 campaign's claim that the measure is all about, and only about, reducing the power of "special interests"? In the interest of being fair and objective, we should be very careful about the word we select to describe this assertion. So let's keep things simple: It's a lie.
How can we know? We can start by examining the campaign's contributors. As it turns out, the claim that you need a big-money ballot campaign to wipe out the influence of special interests carries its own contradiction, in the same way a skunk packs its own stench.