The Magazine

Decline and Fall

California votes for more: taxes, spending, debt, government

Nov 19, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 10 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Proposition 30 was the brainchild of California’s Democratic governor Jerry Brown as an end run around the legislature and its two-thirds rule. It had been touted as a measure that would save the state’s public schools and universities from drastic cuts in state funding. The initiative’s trademark was a shiny red teacher’s apple. “It sold itself,” Brown declared at a victory party. Indeed, California’s teachers’ unions, widely held to be the richest and most powerful unions in the state, were the largest donors to the more than $40 million that Brown’s Proposition 30 campaign raised. In fact, however, none of the revenue that Proposition 30 is expected to produce is actually earmarked for education, which was a “for the children” fig leaf designed to sell the initiative to tax-shy voters. Proposition 30 money will go straight into the state’s general fund. A 1988 initiative, Proposition 98, also heavily backed by the teachers’ unions, requires the state to devote 40 percent of its annual budget to K-12 schools and community colleges, so the billing of Proposition 30 as an education tax was honest in the sense that more money in the general fund means more money for education​—​along with more money for whatever California’s legislators choose to spend the remaining 60 percent on. Even so, the “cuts” that would have been
triggered had the initiative failed weren’t really cuts in existing spending. A $6 billion spending increase built into California’s fiscal 2013 budget would not have taken place had Proposition 30 failed. The $6 billion expected to be raised by Proposition 30 next year is therefore already spent and will do nothing to decrease the deficit.

Along with passing Proposition 30, Californians voted 56 percent to 44 percent to reject another ballot measure, Proposition 32, that would have barred unions from using automatic payroll deductions to raise money for political campaigns. Such bans are tremendously effective in crippling the political power of public-sector unions. “In 2001 Utah passed a law requiring the contributions to be voluntary, and the rate of contributing members to union PACs plunged from 68 percent to 6.8 percent,” says Larry Sand, a retired Los Angeles middle-school teacher who heads the California Teachers Empowerment Network, an anti-union organization for educators. “Idaho passed a law [in 1997] requiring the unions to get written consent from their members, and the rate dropped 75 percent,” Sand added in a telephone interview. Unions and their Democratic party allies fought to defeat Proposition 32 even harder than they fought to pass Proposition 30, pouring more than $75 million collected from their 

2.4 million members into the anti-32 campaign and enlisting hordes of volunteers to get out the vote. The $60 million raised by the proponents paled by comparison, as organized labor pounded home a class-warfare message that Proposition 32 would pave the way for the domination of politics by corporations and wealthy individuals.

Voters in other states​—​notably Indiana and Wisconsin​—​have won important recent victories against public-sector unions, which have been increasingly resented by a recession-hit middle class that sees itself as forced to subsidize via taxes a bloated government workforce that typically enjoys higher pay, lifetime job security, and guaranteed pensions that are nonexistent in the private sector. Indiana became the twenty-third state to limit unions’ power to collect dues from non-union workers, and Wisconsin voters rejected a labor-led effort to recall Republican governor Scott Walker as punishment for signing a bill limiting public employees’ collective-bargaining rights. In California, by contrast, unions rule, and they have played a major role in promoting the state’s toxic combination of crippling taxes and endemic overspending. The political DNA of California now features a double-helix intertwining of a dwindling middle class and a dwindling Republican party, effectively turning California into a one-party state in which Democratic politicians fueled by union dollars and unconstrained by the need for compromise vote their wish lists (and those of the unions that subsidize their campaigns) into law.

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