Putting A Fig Leaf Over ‘Paycheck Protection’

Friday, 20 Jul 2012, 11:00:00 PM

Tom Elias

Thomas B. Elias, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Thomas B. Elias, Columnist

At least the conservative interests behind the latest move to limit or eliminate the influence of labor unions in California politics have heard what their critics said about their earlier efforts.

Twice before, voters have rejected efforts by corporate lobbies like the state Chamber of Commerce to force unions to get signatures yearly from their members before any dues money can be used for political purposes.

The problem with that, opponents said when confronted with similar efforts led by then-Govs. George Deukmejian in 1988 and Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005, was that it would tilt the political playing field too much toward the interests of big corporations, who are not forced to get permission from shareholders before using their money in politics.

Since corporations are now considered the same as human beings by edict of the U.S. Supreme Court, that means there are effectively no limits, no controls at all on their contributions.

In the prior balloting, that gave the interests pushing restrictions on labor unions (usually called “paycheck protection” by those pushing them) too much of an advantage to suit most voters.

As a result, paycheck protection's backers had to create an illusion of fairness before putting the idea back on the ballot this fall. In one essay last spring, Jon Coupal, the head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. and a leading objector to union involvement in politics, claimed the new measure will “diminish the control of special interests over elected officials.”

Then he cited the fig leaf the authors of the new measure wrote into it because their past efforts were demonstrably unfair and unbalanced: The new initiative, he says, “will prohibit corporations and unions from contributing directly to the campaigns of political candidates.”

Yes, it would. But these days that’s of relatively little import.

For the vast bulk of political spending now is not done directly by candidates and their committees -- except in the case of billionaires like former gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman. Rather, it is political action committees (PACs) that buy television commercials and bankroll the creation of commercials.

Sure, they take their cues from candidates and campaign managers even when there’s no formal connection, and sure, unions do this just like corporations.

But the new proposition would still force only labor unions to go back to members each year for permission to spend their money on politics.

Corporations, meanwhile, are free to ignore the wishes of any shareholders who disapprove what they’re doing.

Which means, fig leaf or no fig leaf, this measure is just as unfair as its two predecessors. Just a bit more clever.

Republicans who back this measure have complained it was unfairly titled by state Attorney General Kamala Harris, who gave it this formal description: Prohibits Political Contributions by Payroll Deduction.

Prohibitions on Contributions to Candidates.” Actually, that’s almost a perfect description, for the measure would ban corporate and union contributions directly to candidates.

Objectors to that ballot title would like it to claim that it bans all corporate political donations. But that’s just not true.

What’s needed is another, much more fair, measure. This one should require corporations to get shareholder approval for their political spending at the same time it forces unions to get yearly approvals.

So far, no one has come forward with the time and money it would take to put such a proposal on the ballot.

If something like that happened, unions would have to get signatures from members yearly in order to use their money politically, while corporations would have to include such a question for their California-based shareholders on the proxy ballots they send out yearly just before annual shareholders’ meetings.

Pass both and there would be a real chance to decrease today’s excess of special interest influence over this state’s politicians.

Pass only one, and you have a tilted playing field. But in neither case would corporate and union influence disappear. For if they need to, union leaders will arrange annual signing parties and otherwise pressure members to okay their political spending.

And because most corporate shares are held by insurance companies and pension funds that want corporate interests furthered, most of their current political spending would also continue.

The only thing misleading in all this is to pretend that the paycheck protection initiative would somehow eliminate special interest influence in Sacramento, as Coupal of the Jarvis Association has claimed.

Voters are usually smart enough to see through fig leaves like that one, and mostly likely they will again this time.

Copyright © 2011 by Santa Monica Mirror. All rights reserved.