Special Interest, Union Money a Top Election Issue in California

It’s the home-stretch of this year’s election season, with November 4th being less than three months away — but what is dominating the headlines in California this fall isn’t the contest between the Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.

It’s Proposition 32. The measure calls for prohibition of direct donations to candidates by unions and corporations, but the issue that has drawn the most attention is the clause that would also put an end to the practice of political contribution by payroll deduction. Those involved in the No on 32 campaign says that this would disproportionally affect unions since this is their primary way of collecting money that goes towards electioneering.

Supporters claim that the passage of Prop 32 would substantially reduce the impact of special interest groups on future elections in California, while the opponents are claiming that this yet another attempt to knee-cap the influence of unions on California’s electoral politics.

The “Yes on 32” campaign counters that the payroll provision is a way to “empower employees” and union members while curtailing the influence of special interests. Supporters say that if the measure passes, employees would still be able to make political contributions to their employer or union as long as the money is not automatically deducted but given with written consent.

A look at the cash being thrown around in an effort to make sure Proposition 32 is rejected by the voters is a sobering reminder of how much it costs for one side to preserve the status quo and for the other to overturn it. Overall, unions across California have donated more than $35 million to defeat the measure, which would maintain their ability to donate to candidates without restrictions.

Some might wonder if that kind of fundraising muscle might make unions in the state exactly like the problem they are claiming they wish to solve, but in an editorial for the Huffington Post, Amy B. Dean, a fellow at the Century Foundation, attempts to explain that even though political donations from unions and corporations might look the same to an untrained eye, in reality they are quite different.

This pattern is reflected in the spending on the campaigns around Proposition 32 itself. The top funders in favor of the initiative are individual investors and venture capitalists donating $100,000 or more each. The campaign against the measure, in contrast, is backed by organizations representing tens of thousands of firefighters, teachers, janitors, and healthcare workers.