California’s Shadow Legislature: 21 Years Later
posted at 4:31 pm on August 20, 2012 by Mike Antonucci
Los Angeles Times reporter Michael J. Mishak has written an excellent and detailed description of the power and influence the California Teachers Association holds in state government. He begins with this anecdote:
Last year, as Gov. Jerry Brown hammered out final details of the state budget, he huddled around a conference table with three of the most powerful people in state government: the Assembly speaker, the Senate leader – and Joe Nuñez, chief lobbyist for the California Teachers Assn.
California was on the edge of fiscal crisis. Negotiations had come down to one sticking point: Brown and the legislators would balance the books by assuming that billions of dollars in extra revenue would materialize, then cut deeply from schools if it didn’t.
Nuñez said no.
Opposition from the powerful union, which had just staged a week of public protests against budget cuts, could mean a costly legal challenge. So the group took a break, and the officials retired to another room to hash out something acceptable to CTA while Nuñez awaited their return.
Californians who read the article will receive an illuminating lesson on how the state political apparatus really operates. Mishak’s story is particularly depressing for me, as the state of affairs he describes is what prompted me to start writing about teachers’ unions in the first place.
I dug through an old file box and found a lengthy report I wrote for the Claremont Institute back in October 1994 – long before I created the Education Intelligence Agency. It was part of a series the organization had commissioned called “The California Teachers Association: Power Politics vs. Education Reform.” My contribution was a 25-page briefing titled “The Shadow Legislature.”
The briefing described in gory detail the unique role CTA played in running the state government, but I won’t rehash all that. It will be sufficient to cite this paragraph, from a Los Angeles Times story of June 24, 1991:
As the Legislature wrestled with the state’s $14.3 billion budget deficit through a sweltering weekend earlier this month, some of the key moves were not made by legislators but by officials of the 200,000 member California Teachers Association. CTA lobbyists, carrying proposals and counter-proposals, scurried between the Assembly and Senate chambers and union headquarters, in a former Mexican restaurant two blocks away. They met with individual legislators, groups of lawmakers and representatives of other education groups to discuss nuances of the complex budget negotiations. In the end they won at least a partial victory when Gov. Pete Wilson dropped his high-profile campaign to suspend Proposition 98, the 1988 voter-approved initiative that guarantees funding for public schools and community colleges. Instead of cutting schools by $2.1 billion as he proposed in his budget, Wilson ended up increasing school spending by $822 million.
A lot of things have changed in California in the 21 years since that paragraph was written. As Mishak describes, a lot of the pushback against CTA now comes from Democrats. The state now has more than 1,000 charter schools with more than 410,000 students. Back then, it had none. Former CTA President Del Weber said of charters in March 1993: “About the only thing we’re sure of is that charter schools can employ non-certificated teachers, ignore state mandates for health and safety education, abrogate academic freedom, hire or fire teachers for ideological reasons, and escape all accountability to the taxpayers at large while operating on the taxpayers’ money.” These days, CTA claims it is “not opposed to charter schools.”
But some things never change. The state has run budget deficits under Republicans and Democrats, under large one-party majorities and divided government, under professional politicians and Hollywood actors. The one common factor is the presence in the room of CTA’s top lobbyist. Capitol Weekly named Joe Nuñez the second most powerful political player in the state – behind only someone who sleeps with the governor. Time for CTA to stand outside the locked door with the rest of us.