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Dueling California Measures Set to Tax Rich, Gut Unions

Two ballot measures for Californians this fall could shape the state's politics--a millionaire's tax, or a historic attack on unions' ability to influence campaigns.
 
 
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This piece was originally published at Labor Notes

Californians will vote November 6 whether to approve the largest tax hike on the wealthy in that state since 1978.

Unions say Proposition 30 is necessary to forestall further deep cuts to education and other public services. The state is already 47th in the nation in expenditures per pupil, and without Prop 30 conditions in the schools will get worse.

So campaigning hard for Prop 30—TV ads, mailings, door-knocking, phonebanking—would seem to be a no-brainer for unions.

But this fall’s election season is complicated by the presence of another initiative on the ballot. Prop 32 would make it virtually impossible for unions to play a major role in California politics, by disallowing the use of any money garnered through payroll deductions.

Why is such money tainted? Well, because that’s how unions do it. The aim of Prop 32 is simply to keep unions out of politics. Almost no corporations collect political funds from employees through payroll withholding.

Fred Glass of the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) calls the Yes on 32 campaign “astonishingly deceptive.” Its website trumpets, “The politicians are not listening to us. We need to start taking back California by reducing the influence of Special Interests across the board”—including corporate money.

With language like that, no wonder a mid-July online poll by conservative groups showed Prop 32 with 60 percent in favor and only 29 percent opposed.

Steve Gilbert, a retired Service Employees Local 1021 activist, says that early on, his local showed pro-32 commercials to members who weren’t familiar with the measure. They liked what they saw.

Mike Parker, active in local politics in Richmond in the East Bay, says conservatives are cynically “trying to ride the Occupy sentiment to take big money out of politics.”

Although it would ban direct contributions to candidates, Prop 32 would still allow corporations and unions to support candidates through independent committees—like the Super PACS the Citizens United decision let loose.

Corporations have proven themselves adept at this game. A preliminary report on 2012 elections in California from the National Institute on Money in State Politics shows business interests spending $127 million and unions $29 million.

“What they’re counting on is obfuscation,” Glass said. “And they’re counting on the general public’s anti-politician mood,” noting that state legislators poll just 20 percent support.

Six states in the West and Midwest have passed “paycheck protection” laws, which forbid public employee unions to use dues for political ends without a member’s written consent. Prop 32 goes much further.

HISTORY REPEATS

California unions have faced such anti-union initiatives before, defeating “paycheck protection” in 1998 and 2005. Unions vastly outspent their opponents to win by 53 percent both times. Prop 32 would make such spending impossible.

Glass said labor’s opponents learned from those losses, crafting a new message that would appeal to anyone in the 99%.

“We start off behind because the other side has figured out a way to make this sound good,” he said. “We have an uphill climb—but this gets the labor movement engaged because it threatens its ability to function.”

“It would be nice if the labor movement got as engaged on proactive issues,” Glass said.

TAX THE WEALTHY

Which leads us to Proposition 30, which in its first year would bring $6.8 to $9 billion to state coffers, and $6 billion per year after that. The proposal is designed to fend off a projected $6 billion in cuts to schools and colleges.

The measure squarely targets the 1%, beginning the increase with families that make more than a half million dollars per year. Their income tax rate would jump from 9.3 percent to 10.3 percent, and families making a million would pay 12.3 percent.