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Ballot Measure Aimed at Union Cash

SACRAMENTO-As Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's special election agenda to reshape California appears to be losing ground, attention is shifting to a ballot measure aimed at Democrats that would limit the use of union dues in political campaigns.

Supporters of the so-called Paycheck Protection initiative said Thursday they will turn in more than 600,000 signatures early next week-far more than the 373,816 required for qualification.

If so, the little-noticed initiative could displace the governor's own weakening platform and become a focal point of the expected fall election.

"Paycheck protection is designed and written with one goal in mind: to take union members and union organizations out of the California political process," said Gale Kaufman, strategist for Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, and an adviser to the California Teachers Association. "It goes right to the heart of working men's and women's ability to participate in politics."

The measure, which is opposed by unions and Democrats, would require public sector labor groups such as the teachers union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association and the Service Employees International Union, to get written permission from members to use dues for political purposes.

Schwarzenegger has not endorsed the measure, but its sponsor thinks he will support it as part of his broader plans to change California's political landscape.

Frustrated with the Legislature's Democratic majority, the governor in January proposed a special election for a series of constitutional amendments that would: cap state spending; restrict teacher tenure; reduce funding for public pensions; and overhaul how legislative and congressional districts are created.

But the slate has not proved popular and criticism of his plan has hurt Schwarzenegger's once stellar approval ratings. A new Public Policy Institute of California poll released Thursday showed a majority of voters for the first time do not approve of the governor's job performance.

Earlier this month, the governor dropped his proposal to replace California's traditional public employee pension system with a 401(k) system after discovering a flaw in its language. On Wednesday, the governor further retreated from his agenda by suggesting legislative districts do not need to be immediately redrawn.

Each backslide has given rise to critics of the governor's special election plan and its estimated $70 million price tag.

Some, like Kaufman, suspect the paycheck protection measure is the real focus of the GOP. Many Republicans concede it is an important part of their agenda.

"Redistricting, budget reform and paycheck protection are the big three," said Sen. John Campbell, R-Irvine, a close ally of Schwarzenegger.

The measure is sponsored by tax activist Lewis Uhler, who said he is trying to protect the First Amendment rights of public employees.

"Can you imagine the outcry if corporations were to require their employees to contribute to a (political action committee) and only the corporate leaders can decide how to spend it?" Uhler said.

The idea of limiting union political influence was raised in 1998, when Proposition 226 backed by former Gov. Pete Wilson was soundly defeated by voters. But some political analysts believe it has a better shot if it gets Schwarzenegger's backing.

Bruce Cain, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said voters are likely to be skeptical again but the gain is worth the risk to Republicans who are largely outnumbered in the Capitol by union-backed Democrats.

"The public sector unions have become major players," Cain said. "Teachers, prison guards, government workers-they are the most powerful unions in the state. These white collar unions are well organized and very adept at using money."

Uhler's efforts to gather signatures has been supported by the Small Business Action Committee, which gave at least $310,000. The group's president, Joel Fox, was an aide to Schwarzenegger during the recall election and is now co-chair of the Citizens to Save California, the political committee pushing Schwarzenegger's three ballot proposals.

The governor has not endorsed the union measure nor has Citizens to Save California-even though the group's Web site includes a link to the paycheck petition.

Still, Uhler said he expects if there is a special election and his measure qualifies, Schwarzenegger will endorse it.

"To the extent that we have visited with Joel Fox, I think there's a tacit implication of the governor's support," Uhler said.

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