Union Abuse of the Public Payroll System

Several times now, public employee unions have sued my organization (and me personally) in an effort to stop me from placing on the ballot a measure that prohibits the use of the public payroll system to collect political money. Judging by the amount of the legal fees unions have expended trying to shut me down and the obscene amounts they have spent on media campaigns, this issue makes for a pretty high stakes game.

Over my years in politics, I have placed on the ballot (and passed) measures to lower taxes billions of dollars. I have placed on the ballot measures to require voter approval for tax and fee increases and measures to require that teachers be paid based on their job performance rather than their seniority. Once, I even placed on the ballot (and passed) a measure to rein in the excesses of the public employee retirement system, which is clearly a very hot issue.

None of those measures got me sued.

Public employee unions spent millions opposing all those measures and attacking my name and assassinating my character during the campaigns, but the only measures that got me sued and threatened with a stint in jail were the ones relating to the use of the public payroll system to collect political funds.

Obviously, there is something special about this issue. (I should say in the interest of full disclosure that although I was not personally sued over the public pension measure, my wife and children and I received several pretty nasty and graphic death threats over that one.)

I find it fascinating that you can cut taxes and tinker with the salaries and pensions of public employee union members, but when you do something that threatens the political clout of union leaders, they sue your pants off. This suggests to me that union leaders are a lot more interested in their own political clout than the interests of their members.

Notwithstanding all of the union legal threats, I have submitted to the Oregon Secretary of State what should be enough signatures to place on the 2008 Oregon ballot a measure that prohibits the use of any public resource to collect money that is used for a political purpose. This will be my third round with the unions on this issue.

In the two previous rounds, the public employee unions spent millions of dollars opposing this issue and in both cases they barely won, even though our side spent nothing or close to nothing defending the measures. This suggests that 2008 will be another expensive and nasty fight. But the haunting question remains: Why is this such a big issue to the unions? Why are they willing to ask a Portland judge to throw me in the hoosegow to stop me from merely qualifying this measure for the ballot?

Doesn’t it seem like the American thing to do to require government to remain neutral in elections? Stopping government from collecting political money for the benefit of just one side of the political debate only makes it a fairer fight. Right?

Besides, from a purely practical perspective, why should taxpayers allow their government to collect millions of dollars in campaign funds for the side of the debate that consistently tries to increase their tax burden and grow government spending?

In most states, public employee unions are the 800 pound gorilla of politics, especially the teachers unions. They are generally the largest donors to state legislative races and most local government and school board races. In states like Oregon, they literally control the process with union leaders and activists even staffing the governor’s office.

Most politicians, even the conservative ones, live in fear of the public employee unions, and usually for good reasons. If public employee unions decide to take you out, they have the money to flood the airwaves with nonstop attack ads and to fill your constituents’ mailboxes with direct mail attack pieces. In politics, that’s clout.

Public employee unions have that clout, however, because they cheat. First, they use the public payroll system to collect their political funds, which is a grossly unfair advantage; and second, unions take money from employees’ paychecks for politics without first obtaining the employee’s permission.

That’s it in a nutshell. If public employee unions had to play the game straight up, if they had to raise their political money the way the rest of us do, i.e., by collecting checks from willing donors, they would have only a fraction of the political money they currently have. That is precisely why union bosses will fight to the death to retain these advantages. They like the political power. They enjoy rubbing shoulders with powerful politicians who owe them because of all of the political donations they have made.

Think about this for a moment. Only about eight percent of Americans are members of unions and yet unions are among the most powerful forces in American politics. How could unions have such disproportionate power, if they didn’t have some kind of unfair advantage?

I am sure that union fanatics will bombard my email for saying this, but I know this to be true. Public employee unions are powerful only because they cheat. When states stop unions from taking money out of employees’ paychecks without first obtaining written permission or stop the use of the public payroll system for collecting political funds, union political donations drop by about 90 percent. In other words, when workers have the choice of not donating to union political coffers, they choose not to. End of argument.

Yes, I expect a war next Fall when my measure comes up for a vote. From liberal editorial boards to Democrat officeholders to the public employee unions, the entire political left in Oregon will attempt to skewer me. (Like they can find a place on my body not already having a skewer in it.) Nonetheless, this time, I think we will win. I think voters finally are willing to acknowledge that it is outside its proper role for government to collect campaign contributions for one side of the political debate.

It promises to be an interesting fight. Who knows, the teachers unions might even sue me a few more times. They’ve already blown close to $2 million on legal fees fighting me. Why stop now?