Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Proposition 75 and the California prison system

Jerry Stratton, November 5, 2005

I think that the most important proposal on California’s ballot this year is proposition 75, the “paycheck protection” initiative. Up until now, I’ve been conflicted on this proposal, so I spent last night reading the whole thing trying to get a handle on what it does.

Proposition 75 applies only to public employees. Proposition 75 addresses one of the fundamental problems with bad government programs: once in place, the programs become self-perpetuating. At its most basic, the problem is that employees of such programs are likely to be supporters of the program that employs them. Proposition 75 does not--and cannot, in a democracy--address that basic issue, but it does address the use of public unions as automatic lobbyists in favor of such programs.

California law prohibits the use of public funds or resources to advocate the passage or defeat of a ballot initiative. But this law does not apply to public funds that go directly from the state government to state unions.

In California, if there is a union representing public employees, all public employees are required to pay in. They aren’t required to join, but they are required to pay fees to the union whether they join or not. The money goes from the state to the employee’s paycheck and then is immediately removed from the paycheck and sent to the union.

Unions do not have to let union members opt out of political lobbying; non-union members, those who choose not to join even though they still have to pay the fees, can choose to go to the union and request that their fees not be used for political purposes. Only non-members may do this, and they must specifically request it. By default, the fees from non-members go to political lobbying just as the fees from members do.

Even if they choose not to fund political lobbying, their fees remain the same. They don’t get any money back if they go to the trouble of sticking up and opting out. There is no sense in which this could be said to be the employee’s money. The employee never sees it and can never see it. This is a money-laundering scheme that allows public funds to be used for political lobbying. There would be no difference if the employee’s paycheck were taken out of the equation, except that then it would be more obvious what was going on.

Imagine, for example, that a Republican administration in Washington were to set up a military union and all soldiers were required to pay in, with the union fees automatically deducted from their paychecks. Now imagine that this military union begins lobbying for a military buildup and lobbying for any proposals that will lead to a military buildup: war, military posturing, and instability in foreign governments.

There would be a huge outcry from Americans opposed to such proposals, and rightfully so. The outcry would not be lessened if there were an “opt-out” system where soldiers could choose to tell their union officers that (a) they don’t want to be represented, and then (b) they don’t want their nonmember union fees to go to political lobbying.

At its simplest, what we have here are state programs being given money to lobby in favor of their own perpetuation and extension. What we end up with is a vicious cycle of government programs spending tax money to convince lawmakers to vote in their favor.

For a real-world example of this vicious cycle, look at the prison guard’s union and their stand on marijuana reform. Marijuana laws are their bread and butter, so they spend millions lobbying against relaxing or removing laws against marijuana. They lobby against sentencing reform. Drug users are easy prisoners compared to rapists and murderers. In Drug Policy And California’s Prison Population, the San Diego Union Tribune writes:

Those who argue that it is sensible policy to treat drug users the same way you treat the pathologically violent have clearly prevailed. Today there are 20,862 inmates, approximately the same as the total prison population two decades ago, serving prison sentence solely for drug possession. These are people who are cycled through the system and then placed back on the street without access to treatment or support. Attempts to obtain treatment are often met with waiting lists that are months long. In the meantime, they remain on the streets with few prospects and little hope. Under these conditions, it is not long before many fall back into self destructive drug use and return to prison.

Although such a system seems counter to public safety interests, there are powerful political forces at work in California that promote and sustain the present system. Chief among these forces is the prison guard’s union. Because they benefit from prisons teeming with inmates, the guards lavish campaign contributions on political candidates. The influence that the prisons guard’s campaign contributions buys allows them to pressure elected officials to enact sentencing laws that keep inmates in prison longer, thus expanding the overall pool of prisoners and creating a “need” for more prisons. The guards union blatantly uses its political influence to promote the funding of more prisons.

Why is this addict population coveted by the prison guards union? The answer goes beyond the union’s desire for more prisons and increased staff. When the system is overcrowded, prisons must maintain a ratio of guards to inmates. To maintain this ratio, the system either hires more guards or grants overtime. Overtime is the favored option because it allows current line staff to double their salaries. It is not uncommon for California prison guards to earn over $100,000 a year. Should the number of inmates drop below current levels, extra income from overtime is lost and the argument for more prisons loses merit.

Think about this. We have bad laws that perpetuate drug abuse and perpetuate an expensive prison system. But it is difficult to change those laws because the state government funds lobbyists to lobby the state government and the voters to not change the system!

Proposition 75 doesn’t silence anybody. If proposition 75 passes, public employees will retain the right to opt in and positively choose what programs their money goes to lobby for or against. It may well be that most prison guards will continue to fund their union to lobby against marijuana reform, for example. Or, they may take that money and donate it to other causes; they may even take that money and use it for apolitical purposes. Union leaders seem to think that their members don’t want to support union causes.

But whatever public employees choose to do, it will be their choice. Public employee union funds will no longer be a money-laundering machine for perpetuating bad laws.

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