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Prop. 212: Wolf In Sheep's Clothing

By Larry McCarthy

If there ever was a wolf caught in sheep's clothing, it is Proposition 212, a campaign finance initiative on the November 5 general election ballot.

Editorial board after editorial board of major newspapers in this state have chewed on Proposition 212. They spit it out. No wonder. This scheme by major special interests to carve out their own advantage in the financing of political campaigns is turning stomachs up and down the state.

This initiative is sponsored by the California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG), a Ralph Naderite organization that portrays itself as pro-consumer. The initiative would limit donations to candidates and restrict how much they could spend.

It also would raise taxes. That's right. Want to appear before a legislative body and advocate a cause? In California, that has been considered a business expense, but not under Proposition 212. This initiative would require some groups to pay taxes for their rights to debate issues before legislative bodies while others (public employee unions) would not.

It also would repeal limits on gifts and honoraria for California public officials, something initiative sponsors have been hard-pressed to explain.

What really takes the cake is the effort by CalPIRG -- and its financial angels in this scheme -- to carve out a special loophole for campaign contributors who happen to be public employee unions, including the California Teachers Association.

This initiative would prevent individuals from giving more than $100 to a local or state legislative candidate or $200 to a statewide candidate. However, "citizen contribution committees" could give up to $20,000. These committees of 25 or more members would limit each member to $25 a year. Public employee unions already pump their members for such political funding. They have the ready-made apparatus to fit in quite nicely under Proposition 212.

Thus it would be business-as-usual for powerful labor unions, including the teachers' group, while private-sector interests would be constrained. This explains the CTA's $600,000 contribution to support Proposition 212. It explains the public employee union deep pockets that provided virtually all of the money to qualify this initiative for the ballot. As Tommye Hutto, spokeswoman for the CTA, told the San Francisco Chronicle: "That's what we want to do, so that is what we want to support."

Common Cause's Ruth Holton says of Proposition 212: "Special exemptions for very special, special interests give new meaning to the concept of political hypocrisy." She is right.

Peter Schrag, editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, also has skewered CalPIRG for fostering a holier-than-thou "good government" image while stonewalling reporters who inquired about millions of dollars behind 212. The Bee, in an editorial, quoted a CalPIRG spokesperson as referring to corporate campaign contributions as "corrosive" compared to CTA member contributors who are concerned about education policy.

The Bee said that while individual teachers may believe their CTA is using their dues to promote highest educational ideals, the CTA, like any labor union, survives because its foremost concerns are wages, contracts, hours and seniority rights. Broad public policies are secondary to the union's primary goals.

It is also clear that this initiative would be tied up in the courts if it passes. The likely result: lawyers on both sides will have fatter wallets.

Proposition 212 should be defeated.

-- Larry McCarthy is president of the California Taxpayers' Association (Cal-Tax).