As the legislative session came to an end, some Capitol observers expressed a glimmer of hope that Gov. Jerry Brown would be the independent, reform-minded governor that he swore he would be when he ran for office. After the governor argued that not every problem deserves a government solution — when he vetoed a Nanny-ish ski-helmet law and put the kibosh on a card-check bill that would have eliminated secret-ballot union elections for farm workers — I joined the “wishful thinking” chorus and urged the governor to heed his libertarian impulse.
But Brown was just playing head games with those of us who believe that California must reform its government and take on the public-employee unions that are driving up costs and eroding public services. He vetoed a couple of other egregious union-backed laws, including one that would have unionized child-care workers, but when the final bill-signing tally came in, it’s clear that he is nothing more than a front man for the unions and an enemy of reform.
It always helps to deal in reality. So don’t expect anything to improve under his watch.
The Los Angeles Times summarized the Brown signing and veto flurry with this headline: “Gov. Jerry Brown is giving unions most of what they seek.” As the news story reported, “When the dust settled on Gov. Jerry Brown’s first legislative session in nearly three decades, no group had won more than organized labor, which heralded its largest string of victories in nearly a decade.” Union leaders were crowing with delight.
For instance, the governor signed a bill that makes it nearly impossible for municipalities to declare bankruptcy, forcing them instead to go through a mediation process that is dominated by union supporters who would oppose bankruptcy at all costs. Salaries and benefits are consuming such a large portion of city budgets that officials have no choice but to shut down parks and lay off workers.
The unions won’t budge on benefits, so their goal is to make it impossible to abrogate those overly generous union contracts that are the source of the problem.
Brown signed another union device to stop reform: SB 202, which pushes citizen initiative measures to only November general election ballots.
The idea is to make it more difficult to pass initiatives by burdening the ballot with too many measures. Unions know that they own the Legislature and that the reforms they fear will come at the ballot box, so they want to throw a wrench in the gears of direct democracy.
The governor has built his governorship to date on the idea that Californians are undertaxed. By cutting out opportunities for governmental reform through measures such as municipal bankruptcy and the ballot box, he is eliminating alternatives to his preferred “solution” — higher taxes. That’s a cynical approach.
As the Times pointed out, “At the urging of the food workers’ union, Brown agreed to crack down on the use of automated checkout machines in grocery stores. … He guaranteed wages for workers in public libraries that are privatized — a bill sponsored by another labor group.” These bills are about using government power to artificially protect union jobs, regardless of the costs imposed on business owners, consumers and taxpayers.
Most egregious, Brown vetoed a bill, SB 914, that had wide support in the Legislature (it received only four “no” votes between both houses) that would have overturned a California Supreme Court decision that allows police to wantonly violate civil liberties. If you are arrested for any reason, the court ruled that police can take your smart phone and rifle through all its many files, emails, phone numbers, photographs, or tap into a reporter’s newsroom database and fish for incriminating evidence. In their view, a cell phone is no different than anything else a cop might find in your pocket.
“Brown’s veto also shores up support with police unions and the Peace Officers Research Association of California, a police union that opposed the legislation and recently donated $38,900 to Brown’s campaign coffers,” Wired magazine reported.
Unions Before People
Once again, Brown puts the interest of some of the most controversial unions — i.e., PORAC — paid for the legal defense of a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer who shot to death an unarmed, restrained man in Oakland, and has fought efforts to release records of police misbehavior — ahead of the rights of citizens. Forget any notion of Brown as a believer in civil liberties.
Brown also signed a bill, SB 922, that would stop localities from banning those union-monopoly “project labor agreements,” which force nonunion contractors to hire union workers if they want to bid on public-works jobs. PLAs inflate the cost of projects by reducing competition and thereby make it harder to stretch public dollars. They also eliminate free choice and the bill Brown signed is undemocratic in that it undermines local decision making.
Yet Brown — obviously stretching to provide cover for an indefensible signing — argued that the bill “seems fair to me — even democratic.”
In Brown’s union-colored worldview, stopping democratic efforts is democratic.
Another example of Brown’s intellectual dishonesty came when he signed legislation, SB 26, and an executive order that attempt to stop contraband cell phones from making it into the state’s prison system. The efforts ignored the figurative elephant in the jail cell — the prison guards’ union, whose members are a main conduit for the phones (some guards take bribes to smuggle the phones to gang members). The union has obstructed searches of employees that would cut down on this practice.
California won’t be competitive again until the government is reformed. Reform can’t take place until the unions, which control the Capitol, are brought under control.
It wasn’t totally unreasonable to hope that the at-times unpredictable Brown might have used his final chance at power to leave a legacy of reform and accountability. At least we know for sure that Brown isn’t the man for the job and that all such hope is misplaced.
About the author: Steven Greenhut is the editor-in-chief of Cal Watchdog, an independent, Sacramento-based journalism venture providing original investigative reports and news stories covering California state government. Greenhut was deputy editor and columnist for The Orange County Register for 11 years. He is author of the new book, “Plunder! How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation.”