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How Prop. 32 Could Affect LAUSD

Hillel Aron | July 26, 2012

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Gloria Romero (photo by Celeste Freemon)

Prop 32 would have huge implications for LAUSD politics, drastically limiting the amount of money unions could spend on local races. In 2011, UTLA spent over $2 million on school board races. And at first it seems like a straightforward, partisan issue– Democrats and Unions vs. Republicans and rich guys.

But one Democrat has stepped forward to support prop 32: Gloria Romero, California Director of Democrats for School Reform:  “Unless we’re willing to tackle how the money flows,” says Romero, “we’re not going to ever see education reform in California.”  This raises the question:  will other Democrats and school reformers follow Romero’s lead? Or will they be fearful of pissing off the Democratic establishment? Turns out the politics of prop. 32 — and the implications for LAUSD — are not as straightforward as they may seem.

If passed, prop. 32 would ban:

• Direct contributions from unions and corporations to state and local candidates
• Direct contributions by government contractors to politicians  who control those contracts (a similar measure already exists in Los Angeles)
• Automatic deductions by corporations and unions from employees’ paychecks to be used for political activity

It’s that last provision, dubbed paycheck protection (or, derisively, “paycheck deception”) that so frightens unions. Much of their political influence comes from these automatic deductions, which are funneled into political campaigns in massive amounts. The California Teachers Association, for example, dumped a staggering $118 million into campaigns from 2001 to 2011, far exceeding any other individual, corporation or PAC.

Sac Bee columnist Dan Walters has a good summary of the debate to come:

Whatever the term, it’s clearly part of a nationwide effort by conservative groups to hamstring union political influence.

Several other states have adopted similar laws, and they appear to have sharply reduced the political money that unions can collect.

The real issue for voters, therefore, is whether they believe unions have an unfair advantage in gathering money from payroll deductions to spend on friendly politicians, or whether restricting such fundraising would unfairly limit their ability to participate in politics.

(It was something of a surprise to see Common Cause, a good government group usually devoted to getting money out of politics, come out against the proposal.)

Take the last school board race. Marguerite LaMotte only raised $70,000, while her opponent, Eric Lee, raised only $30,000. But the SEIU local 99 and UTLA spent a combined $583,000 in independent expenditure campaigns (essentially advertising campaigns that are independent from the official campaign– like the Swift Boat attack ads against John Kerry in 2004) supporting LaMotte, making the race a cakewalk. The same thing happened in Richard Vladovic’s race. Prop 32 wouldn’t stop the spending, but it would hamper the raising of the money.

Now, Prop 32 is selling itself as a measure to take money out of both sides of politics– unions and corporations. But school board races (as well as school reform-influenced assembly races, like Brian Johnson’s recent effort) don’t always stack up like this. A lot of times, it’s rich guys like Eil Broad or Reed Hastings (CEO of Netflix) throwing down a couple hundred thousand dollars.

And so Prop 32 has the potential to shift the balance of power over to the school reformers in a big way.

Romero’s decision to support prop 32 was in part a result of the failure of SB 1530, which would have made it easier to fire teachers who commit sexual or physical acts on students. The bill, sponsored by Alex Padilla, died in committee after a number of Democrats, including Betsy Butler and Mike Eng, abstained from voting.

“That little tiny bill,” says Romero, who was the first female speaker of the assembly in California, “that was an example of a very moderate bill. The [assembly] members were too afraid to vote.

“In education, over and over, [bills like that] get killed. Reformers run for office, most don’t get elected. People are afraid to take on reform for fear they’ll get taken out. Yolie Flores was afraid to run for reelection. You see this over and over. We can try running candidates, but until you deal with how the money flows, it’s not gonna change.”

Prop 32, she says, would “begin to move special interest money out of the political arena, out of holding [assembly] members hostage.”

Yes on 32 has raised around $4 million, mostly from rich guys like Charles Munger Jr. and Jerry Perenchio. The No side has raised about $8 million, almost entirely from unions. The CTA has given $685,700– so far. They have the means to spend much more, but are also trying to get Obama re-elected and pass Jerry Brown’s millionaire tax.

At least one Democrat is mad at Romero. That would be chairman of the LA County Democratic Party and Vice Chair of the state party. After Romero’s announcement, Bauman posted this on his Facebook page:

So will other school reformers follow Romero’s lead? Or will they be fearful of pissing off the Democratic establishment? The measure is fairly popular– an early poll showed Yes on 32 leading 60% – 30%– in a state where Democrats have a large majority. On the other hand, a lot of money can swing those poll numbers fairly quickly.

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