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October 18, 2012

The State Worker: Public unions face choices in two-front ballot war

If he had just one vote on Nov. 6, the president of the California Federation of Teachers wouldn't use it on Gov. Jerry Brown's tax hike for schools.

If he had just one vote on Nov. 6, the president of the California Federation of Teachers wouldn't use it on Gov. Jerry Brown's tax hike for schools.

Forced to choose, Joshua Pechthalt would vote against a measure two slots down on the ballot that changes the state's political campaign financing laws.

"Defeating Prop. 32 is the priority," Pechthalt said on Wednesday.

Of course, Californians don't have to pick. But Pechthalt's answer reveals how public-employee union leaders view the unwelcome two-front political war in which they find themselves.

Unions would prefer to focus on passing Proposition 30, which hikes the state sales tax and income taxes on California's highest earners. If it fails, schools face about $5.4 billion in cuts. Public employee jobs and pay would fall under the ax.

Pechthalt says Brown's proposal is "the anti-Prop. 13," referring to the landmark 1978 initiative that ushered in a national anti-tax movement that still reverberates today.

But he considers Proposition 32 an even bigger deal. It bans "unions and corporations" from using payroll-deducted money for political purposes.

Unions rely on payroll-deducted dues for their political funding. The business interests normally aligned against labor participate in politics with money from individual contributors and company resources. If Proposition 32 passes, they'd still have money. Unions would scramble for political funds.

It's easier to defeat a ballot measure than to pass one, especially a tax hike, but Proposition 32 forces the unions to channel their money into defending the status quo. They've given $53 million to fight the campaign finance measure, roughly $8 million more than Brown and others have raised from labor and other sources to promote his tax hike measure.

Meanwhile, two "No on 30/Yes on 32" independent expenditure committees have jumped into the fray with a combined $35 million, including $11 million from a murky out-of-state super PAC on Tuesday.

With no Proposition 32 on the ballot, the unions could have put more cash toward the tax increase.

Polls show a slim majority of voters support Brown's measure. More voters lean against Proposition 32 than support it, but the percentage of undecided voters is larger.

If both trends hold through Election Day, labor can declare a clear victory. Any other combination of outcomes would be a defeat for unions and a win for conservative interests.

If both pass, unions win the tax battle but lose what they consider a much bigger political-influence war.

If voters reject both measures, the unions still lose. They dodge the political funding ban, but governments – particularly school districts – will face budget cuts.

Labor's nightmare scenario envisions voters rejecting 30 and embracing 32. That would hand their conservative opponents both immediate and long-term wins in their epic ongoing battle.

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