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California’s Prop. 32 would be Citizens United on steroids

The Hill, 8/14/12

By John Logan, professor, San Francisco State University - 08/14/12


Conservative activists in California are promoting a deceptive ballot proposition that would increase the ability of business groups and billionaires to dominate state elections. The measure, Proposition 32, claims to be an even-handed effort at campaign finance reform – but nothing could be further from the truth. Prop. 32 (or “Stop Special Interest Money Now,” as its big money supporters prefer to call it) would cripple the ability of unions to participate in politics, but have little or no impact on unlimited spending by corporate executives and other wealthy individuals.
Data compiled by the non-partisan Center for Investigative Reporting demonstrates that the business interests who would benefit most from Prop. 32 already dominate California election spending.

Between 2001-2011, business interests spent over $700 million on initiatives, candidates, and parties, while labor unions contributed well under half that amount -- just over $284 million. Wealthy individuals bankrolled a further $231 million. Under Prop. 32 neither the spending by business interests nor wealthy individuals would face meaningful limitations – indeed, it would likely explode – while that of unions would be all-but eliminated.

The biggest corporate spenders include Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America of Washington, DC, with over $71 million, PG&E, with over $66 million, Chevron Corp., with over $50 million, and the tobacco giants Virginia-based Philip Morris and North Carolina-based R.J. Reynolds, with a combined total of $65 million. Most of this spending was on initiatives that provide special breaks for corporations. Prop. 32 would not fix that – its many exemptions mean that corporations could still spend big on campaigns and super PACs

Unions are also major players in California politics. The two largest players, the California Teachers Association and the State Council of the Service Employees International Union, together account for $168 million of spending, well over half of labor’s total spending.

The biggest single contributor, the teachers union, has spent heavily to protect funding for K-12 public education and limit class sizes for California students, not for corporate tax breaks or to block health warnings on tobacco and other carcinogens. Prop. 32’s restrictions against spending through payroll deductions -- which is how unions raise money for political campaigns -- would virtually eliminate this public interest spending.

The outcome would be to slash spending in support of funding for public education, health and safety, or to protect working Californians, but encourage massive spending by tobacco, pharmaceutical and real estate giants. And we would soon see an avalanche of ballot measures designed to weaken labor standards, targeting wage and hour laws, paid sick leave, health and safety provisions and other essential protections.

Prop. 32 would also have no impact on spending by billionaires, the 0.1% of the electorate who are currently bankrolling federal super PACs. Over the past decade the top fifty wealthy individuals have spent over $231 million on California elections. Two of the top three billionaire spenders in California – Jerry Perenchio and Charles Munger, who together have spent over $30 million – are major contributors to the Prop. 32 campaign. The last thing California needs is a measure that would increase the ability of billionaires to dominate and distort our politics.

These wealthy individuals are seeking to silence the voices of schoolteachers, firefighters and nurses, but are actively involved in buying elections. This shows the deep cynicism behind Prop. 32. Its principal backer, the right-wing Lincoln Club of Orange Country, was a key player in the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which has led to a massive increase in billionaire-funded super PAC spending.  The Lincoln Club welcomed Citizens United as a victory for free speech, but now wants voters to believe it supports even-handed campaign finance reform.

Prop. 32 is a “billionaires’ bill of rights,” not an imperfect but well-intentioned effort to tackle special interest spending. If it were to pass, businesses and billionaires who have spent almost a billion over the past decade would dominate California elections even more than they do today, while ordinary Californians would be stripped of an effective voice.  It is no wonder that the nation’s leading good governance groups unanimously and unequivocally oppose this effort at deception.

Prop. 32 is the polar opposite of even-handed campaign finance reform. It would turn California elections into Citizens United on steroids.

Logan is professor and director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University.

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