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Unions Spend Big, Win Big in California

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Nov. 7 (Bloomberg) -- Efforts to rein in the power of California’s public-employee unions, and to reform out-of-control compensation costs that are eroding services and busting public budgets, came to a crashing halt on Tuesday in California.

The idealistic hope that California voters would keep a firm grasp on their wallets, thus forcing the state to rein in pay and other costs, was a pipedream. Californians, who typically vote “no” when it comes to initiatives that directly increase taxes, gave Governor Jerry Brown’s income- and sales-tax boost (Proposition 30) a surprisingly decisive win, with nearly 54 percent of the vote.

The governor embraced modest pension changes and vetoed union-backed spending measures only at the last minute of the legislative session as a way to convince voters that he was serious about reform and that they should vote for 30. With new money coming into the state coffers, there will be little impetus to rein in spending -- at least until the Democratic-dominated Legislature blows the new money.

Union-backed advertisements not only boosted Brown’s tax increase measure, but crushed Proposition 32, a paycheck-protection initiative that would have restricted unions’ ability to automatically deduct political funds from members’ paychecks. The union side mustered a 56 percent “no” vote -- not unexpected, but discouragingly high nonetheless.

Those of us who look, desperately perhaps, for evidence of a reform movement have at least been able to champion efforts at the local level, where city council members have been able to move the needle in confronting public-sector benefits. But the unions mostly did well in municipal elections too.

The biggest disappointment: U.S. Representative Bob Filner, a Democrat and close union ally, appears to have won a slim victory in the San Diego mayor’s race over Republican policy wonk Carl DeMaio. A Filner victory essentially spells the end of a pension reform measure that voters approved in June given that the mayor will have endless tools at his disposal to evade the tough new law.

In Orange County, the city of Costa Mesa had become something of a national example on how to take on union power, as its council majority promoted outsourcing and pension changes. While voters there re-elected reformers, they rejected a city charter measure that would have allowed the majority to have more latitude in carrying out changes. Unions from across the state flooded the campaign with money, outspending charter-reform backers by 10 to 1.

For many Californians, the road forward might be one of the freeways headed toward Nevada or Arizona.

(Steven Greenhut, a Bloomberg View contributor based in Sacramento, California, is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.)

Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View columnists and editors at the Ticker.

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