SACRAMENTO — California voters appear poised to reject a November ballot measure that would ban political contributions by payroll deduction, according to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.
Forty-four percent of those surveyed said they opposed Proposition 32, which would eliminate the main fundraising tool of unions. Just 36% said they supported the measure, which would also bar corporations and unions from contributing directly to candidates.
Proponents of the measure, having focused squarely on unions in two past attempts to end paycheck deductions for political purposes, adopted the language of the Occupy Wall Street movement this time around and rebranded their campaign as an effort to curb the power of special interests.
An ad touting the measure says it would "cut the money tie between special interests, lobbyists and career politicians" and "put people back in charge." The supporters' core argument is that the initiative would apply "evenhandedly, without exception," to corporations and unions.
Campaign finance experts disagree, saying the measure would disproportionately hobble organized labor by prohibiting payroll deductions to collect campaign cash. Corporations, they say, rarely use such a method to raise political money, instead tapping executive checkbooks and company treasuries.
The labor-backed opposition campaign has hit on that theme, airing radio and TV ads for more than a month that paint the measure as a deceptive corporate power grab, complete with exemptions for business. So far, unions have raised more than $43.4 million to defeat Proposition 32, which is being bankrolled by Republican donors, conservative activists and business executives.
As a result, proponents "aren't able to convince voters this is a clean-government, stop-special-interests initiative," said Dave Kanevsky of the Republican polling firm American Viewpoint, which conducted the survey in conjunction with the Democratic company Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.
Indeed, when respondents heard arguments for and against the measure — supporters saying it would end influence peddling and opponents calling it phony campaign finance reform — opposition grew, with 48% saying they would vote against the initiative. Only 36% said they would vote for it.
"People are ready to believe that … corporations are spending this money to rig the system more for them," said Stan Greenberg, the Democratic pollster.
In addition to the payroll provision, Proposition 32 would bar government contractors from contributing to elected officials, something that Los Angeles voters approved overwhelmingly in last year's local elections.
Proponents shouldn't "go too far in trying to suggest it does the same thing to businesses as it does to unions," said Rob Stutzman, a GOP consultant who helped run a campaign against paycheck deduction in 2005 for then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "Voters will resent you for trying to trick them."
One of those voters is Jeremy Ziegler, a 41-year-old Democrat from Oakland. An initial supporter of Proposition 32, he said he changed his mind when he heard arguments that certain businesses, including limited liability companies, or LLCs, and business trusts, could be exempted.
"I just don't think the little guy should get money taken out of his check for a candidate that his company or union supports," Ziegler said. "But if you're a big corporation or a big bank on Wall Street making billions of dollars and you're completely exempted, I don't think that's right either."
Proponents deny that their measure contains business exemptions. The state's nonpartisan legislative analyst's office said the initiative's language is unclear on that point.
Although the measure would block the direct flow of money from corporations and unions to candidates, experts said businesses would be free to spend unlimited amounts on independent committees to boost or challenge candidates and ballot measures. Labor would be free to do likewise, but its fundraising mechanism would have been cut off.
"You can't keep big money out of politics," said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at UC San Diego. "But you can make it harder for your opponent to raise money."
The initiative's backers acknowledge the measure's limitations, saying they went as far as existing law allows. The U.S. Supreme Court ended limits on political spending through independent organizations in 2010. The court ruled such contributions to be free speech, protected by the Constitution.
"Anybody who wants to get serious about campaign finance reform runs right into all of the cases under the 1st Amendment," said Michael Capaldi, a Republican attorney who helped draft Proposition 32.
Trevor Bivins, a 30-year-old Republican from Lompoc, said special interests need to be curbed in blue California. In his view, recent changes in the state's overburdened public pension system fell short and failed to touch current workers because lawmakers are beholden to public employee unions.
Even though the state is in financial trouble, "people are living off these fat, huge pensions," said Bivins, a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force. "I don't like the way they use lobbyists to get politicians to do their bidding."
The USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times poll surveyed 1,504 registered California voters Sept. 17-23. The sampling error is 2.9 percentage points.