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Taxpayer groups, unions debate political donations initiative

Committee hoping to spark conversation about petitioner reform, spokesman says
By: Bridget Jones, Journal Staff Writer
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A California initiative has local unions and taxpayer groups debating about political donations, while some question the timing of a radio advertisement asking residents to stop and think before signing a petition. The Stop Special Interest Money Now Act would no longer allow government employee unions to use automatic payroll deductions for union dues for political causes, unless an employee gave an annual written authorization for the union to do so. The act would also apply to corporate payroll deductions. According to Ginny Rapini, coordinator for the NorCal Tea Party Patriots, the group is currently gathering signatures for the initiative. Rapini said those working to get the initiative on the ballot in 2012 hope to gather 900,000 signatures. “We are very close,” Rapini said. Jon Coupal, president of Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which has an office in Sacramento, said the company supports the initiative. “We think it’s something that California voters will want to help clean up the political system in California, and yes we do support it,” Coupal said. Lysa Sassman, a teacher at Rock Creek Elementary School in Auburn, vice president of the Auburn Union Teachers Association and member of the California Teachers Association state council, said while the union doesn’t have a particular stance on the initiative, teachers’ dues don’t have to go toward political causes. “We don’t have a formal position on it, but we have opposed, with the voters, and overwhelmingly (voted down) two similar things before,” Sassman said. “You can always opt out of any type of political funding in your dues money, so it’s up to the individual member. You always have a choice. I can’t speak for other unions. I know with CTA it’s always that case. Even if you do say it’s OK for your money to be used politically, it can only be used for certain things.” Sassman said for example the money can’t go to backing national candidates. “I think there are a lot of safeguards in place, and I feel completely comfortable with how it’s being handled right now,” she said. Michael Cox, communications director for Service Employees International Union California, said that SEIU’s members can also opt out of their dues going toward political causes. Cox said the union believes this initiative, if passed, would not allow public employees to give their opinions politically in the way they can now. “Our focus is on how this potential proposition would silence the voices of hardworking Californians,” Cox said. Foresthill resident Dianne Foster, a member of the NorCal Tea Party Patriots and retired teacher from Livermore, said about a month ago she started hearing an advertisement on the radio advising against signing petitions because of possible identity theft. Foster said she thought it was strange that the ad was running now when signatures are being gathered for the initiative, especially when she heard at the end of the ad that it was being sponsored by labor organizations. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is strange,’ and so there is this identity theft group putting this stuff out,” Foster said. “I thought, ‘What a coincidence, what timing, because we have all had information passed by us over the years about identity theft.” The ad consists of a man and woman talking. The woman tells the man she signed a petition earlier in the day. The man tells the woman that in Oregon two petitioners were indicted for making false statements in violation of elections law and identity theft. The man also tells the woman that there is no law against companies hiring convicted felons to act as petitioners. Roger Salazar, spokesman for the Californians Against Identity Theft and Ballot Fraud committee, said the State Buildings and Construction Trades Council of California and the California State Pipe Trades Council are sponsoring the movement, but are not the ones who formed the committee. Salazar said the group has filed as a political committee with the Secretary of State’s Office and the Fair Political Practices Commission, which makes them subject to disclosure rules. Salazar said the group doesn’t have a problem with volunteers going around to gather petition signatures, but with corporations paying sums like $2.5 million to hire a firm to collect signatures in whatever way possible. According to Salazar, the ad is not running because of the special interests initiative, and the committee doesn’t hold a certain stance on it. “I wouldn’t say they are coincidental,” Salazar said. “I think the timing may have been fortuitous for us as we were putting together the committee.” Salazar said the two unions are involved because they are concerned about the fraud that could be taking place when people are asked to sign petitions. “I think they are concerned that people are being misled when they go to sign the petitions,” he said. “Their biggest concern is fraud, that people are being told whatever it takes to get them to sign a petition. You have got people out there who are paid bounty hunters doing that kind of work.” Salazar said one of the committee’s concerns it that signatures gathered on petitions can then be fraudulently transferred to other petitions in order to put initiatives on the ballot, such as what happened in the Oregon case. Salazar said the committee’s goal is to spark a conversation and then to possibly push for reforms in who is allowed to gather petition signatures and to ensure they are paid by the hour, not by the number of signatures they get. Both Sassman and Cox said their unions are not involved with the committee or advertisement. Coupal said he doesn’t think the advertisements will make a difference when it comes to signing petitions like the ones for the initiative. “I personally find the ads very ineffective,” he said. “I think they are wasting their money. I think people are not dissuaded or not convinced the labor groups are going to be defenders against identity theft.” Reach Bridget Jones at bridgetj@goldcountrymedia.com