SACRAMENTO — Proposition 32 is stark proof that often you can tell a ballot initiative by its cover.
Its promoters call their measure "The Stop Special Interest Money Now Act."
To pilfer an old Lily Tomlin line: No matter how cynical I get, I can't keep up.
Any ballot measure with a handle like that has to be automatically suspect.
Even a cursory look at Prop. 32 shows that it's about a covey of special interests from the right attacking a rival interest on the left, organized labor.
If backers had turned their initiative into an honest debate about curtailing labor muscle — specifically the influence of public employee unions — they would have deserved more serious consideration.
But by deciding to phony it up — crafting what they perceived to be the best marketing pitch based on public opinion surveys — they've created a laugher and an insult to the voters' intelligence.
Promising to stop special-interest money is akin to pledging to halt the Santa Ana winds.
Let's put it this way: Prop. 32 would prohibit unions and corporations from contributing money to political candidates. OK, that has been the law in congressional campaigns for many decades.
Is there anyone who believes that special-interest money does not influence Washington?
There is no complete cure in a democracy for special-interest influence. Nor should there be.
We're all special interests, whether PTA members or individual taxpayers or tobacco peddlers. We want our elected representatives to reflect our views. And we try to influence them, whether merely by voting or also by plying them with campaign dollars.
The ultimate solution to quashing special-interest money influence on politicians is public financing of campaigns. If the public doesn't buy the politicians, as I've often written, the special interests will. And do. But voters seem dead set against spending tax dollars on politicians and their campaign ads and consultants.
Anyway, the U.S. Supreme Court has made public financing unrealistic.
And so-called campaign finance reforms — let's be honest — aren't working, at least in Sacramento.
Politicians, as I've also written, are like insects. Some bugs can adapt to a new pesticide and become tougher and smarter. Same with politicians and "reform." In political Darwinism, the fittest learn to survive in loopholes and outwit each new attempt to sanitize a Capitol.
Perhaps we should allow each candidate to raise whatever amount he or she can from any source, but require the contribution to be immediately reported to the public online. Fast, full disclosure. Shine a light on the special interest — or the billionaire benefactor — and hold the politician accountable.
But back to Prop. 32. It moves in the opposite direction of reform by attempting to tilt the playing field unfairly to the right.
It's the third time around for this type of attempted union maiming. Earlier measures failed in 2005 and 1998.
Prop. 32's real purpose is to cripple labor unions politically. It would do this by prohibiting unions from using payroll deductions for political purposes, with or without a worker's permission.
Corporations — and this is particularly deceptive — also would be covered by the ban. But they generally don't raise political money with payroll deductions. They do it either by dipping into their corporate treasuries or by putting the squeeze on highly paid executives.
The unions' sole source of political money, however, is payroll deductions.
"We're strongly in favor of wiping out special-interest influence in politics," says Derek Cressman, regional director of California Common Cause, a reform group that opposes Prop. 32.
"We just don't think Prop. 32 does that. It wipes out one particular interest. All you'd be doing is proportionately increasing the influence of every other interest. Businesses. Wealthy people."
If Prop. 32's conservative backers — starting with the Republican Lincoln Club of Orange County — had sincerely wanted to protect the union members' paychecks from involuntary siphoning for undesired political causes, they could have merely proposed making it simpler for the workers to opt out of the deduction system. Currently they can, but it's usually not easy.
But that isn't Prop. 32's goal. It's to render unions — private and public sector — politically impotent.
Exempted from Prop. 32 are tons of business entities: limited liability companies, limited liability partnerships, limited partners.... And, of course, it wouldn't affect billionaires.
One very rich Republican activist, Charles Munger Jr., has donated nearly $22 million to a committee pushing Prop. 32 and opposing Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative, Prop. 30.
As for all the exemptions, Prop. 32 spokesman Jake Suski says, "We're going as far as federal law allows, as far as constitutionally possible."
"At the end of the day," Suski adds, "Prop. 32 isn't about reshaping the balance of power between special interests. It's about putting more power in the hands of individual citizens. It empowers individuals" — union members — "to decide whether they want to contribute."
It certainly would put more power in the hands of such citizens as Charley Munger.
John Logan, director of labor studies at San Francisco State, says business interests already outspend unions on politics by 2½ to 1 in California.
"If this were to pass," the professor says, "it would make the distortion of elections by big money even worse than it is. It would be physically impossible for unions to raise money. But it would have no impact on business or billionaires."
As a solution to special-interest influence in politics, Prop. 32 is a self-serving sham.