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Multi-State Ad Campaign Targets Public Employees

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Rewarding Work

Multi-state Advertising Campaign Targets Public Employees

For public employees in four states, this may have been a rough week. As if balancing typical duties of work and family is not enough, a front group for anonymous business interests this week began running ads in Michigan, Montana, Nevada, and Oregon accusing public employees of being lazy and overcompensated. The campaign is connected to the well-orchestrated rightwing attempt to impose TABOR-style spending limits in numerous states through ballot measures this fall.

The ads, being run by the inaccurately named Center for Union Facts, portray state employees as either lazy, incompetent workers bragging about their "sick pay" or as fools being played by elected union officials. The buy is large -- the Center has committed $1 million to print and broadcast ads in these four states. But a big question remains: just who exactly is funding it?

  • (Trying to) Follow the Money -- The Center for Union Facts is one of many industry front groups run by Berman & Co., the lobbying firm run by Rick Berman and his wife. Rick Berman is a high-flying lobbyist and former Chamber of Commerce staffer whose business now moves at least $10 million a year (for more on Berman, check out today's Eye on the Right). But the source of funding for his various front groups is difficult to discern. While the Center's budget is a reported $8 million, Berman and his lackeys refuse to disclose the funding sources. Two sources that were the target of early speculation -- Wal-Mart and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- have both denied funding the organization.
  • Priming the Pump for Privatization -- While specific funding sources are unclear, one motivation may be less in doubt. Attacks on public employees historically have served as a rallying point for the disastrous privatization movement. Promoting the notion of a more efficient private sector better able to handle government services in a cost-effective way is a key component in selling the idea of contracts to the public. Once those contracts are inked, a different story emerges: privatization fails to improve services or lower costs, instead serving mainly to open the door to corruption. Given that Berman's shady backers are willing to anonymously slander hard-working Americans, we do not think that preventing corruption is their primary concern.
  • Setting the Stage for Spending Caps -- Astute students of the 2006 election may have noticed something interesting about the four states targeted by the ads: all four states are also being targeted by Howard Rich and his libertarian network with ballot measures modeled on Colorado's disastrous TABOR spending cap law. Again, by playing up the notion of government waste, these ads encourage voters to support spending caps as a means of punishing state employees. While the connection between the initiatives and the ad placement was noticed by more than a few labor leaders and journalists, Rick Berman actually had the moxie to deny the association to a reporter with the Associated Press -- telling them that there was no relation whatsoever. That was a tough line to maintain given that Berman's organization has been working publicly with Howard Rich's Americans for Limited Government recently. And on the same day that Berman was denying connections to one reporter in Montana, he was admitting the connections to The Register Guard in Oregon. Needless to say, the man got caught in his double-speak.
  • Fighting the Unfair Attacks -- Public employees, just like other groups caught in the crossfire from conservative attacks, deserve progressive support. The question is how to push back effectively. Keep in mind that the Center for Union Facts relies on two big lies in order to accomplish its goals: 1) The Center is not anti-union, it is simply opposed to abusive union practices; 2) The Center is pro-worker. Neither of these statements are true. The Center has a clear record from day one of distorting and manipulating facts to portray unions as negatively as possible. And the Center, despite claiming to fight for workers, is actually blatantly attacking them in these ads. Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath framed the response to the ads perfectly, making clear that the Center is a powerful, out-of-state group that is demeaning the work of people who work hard for less-than-stellar wages. In fact, as McGrath made clear, the singling out of Department of Motor Vehicle employees for mocking shows just how out-of-touch the Center is:
    "For anyone to suggest that Montana Motor Vehicle Division field bureau employees are overpaid is laughable," McGrath said in a news release. "They license more than 162,000 drivers of all ages and abilities each year, and they do an exemplary job at a wage that is barely livable."

More Resources

Growing Economy

NY: Pataki Vetoes Credit Card Reform Bill

You sign up with a credit card promising you a fixed interest rate. You pay all your credit card bills on time and in full, but slip up paying a bill to a totally different company, say the power company, a bit late. Your credit card company suddenly changes the rules and raises your credit card rate to up to 35%, based on a provision buried in the fine print of credit card agreements called "universal default."

New York legislators, spurred by consumer complaints, enacted A00809 to bar credit card companies from raising interest rates because a customer missed or made a late payment to a different creditor. As Assemblyman Peter M. Rivera (D-Bronx) said upon passage, "This legislation sends a clear message that this type of anti-consumer behavior will not be allowed in our state anymore."

Unfortunately, Governor Pataki gave in to credit card industry lobbyists and vetoed the bill, giving his "stamp of approval to a deceptive practice that costs consumers millions of dollars in inflated interest payments," in the words of Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren, who has written extensively on the credit card industry's manipulation of consumers and the political process.

While the law would have had limited impact, since the banking industry has designed federal law to limit how much states can regulate national banks, the legislation could have become a model for other states and, more dangerously, for national lawmakers. And the existence of the law would have helped consumers in validating their claims in court that many people feel such default clauses are deceptive practices.

We can only hope that the New York legislature will override the veto and send the credit card industry a message that these kinds of unfair consumer practices have to end.

More Resources

Valuing Families

Update on Regulatory Takings Initiatives

As we detailed a few weeks ago, rightwing developers are using the cover of "fixing" eminent domain to push radical anti-environment initiatives on ballots across the country. Opponents ranging from outdoor sports organizations to labor unions have been mobilizing in response. A few highlights:

Montana -- Trout Unlimited slammed the proposed I-154 in a letter to the editor in Headwaters News as "a Trojan horse" designed to make it easier for Wal-Mart or a gravel pit to open right next to peoples' homes. The states' largest employee union, MEA-MFT, which represents 16,000 public employees, came out in opposition and its President Eric Feaver, called the initiative "an anarchist's dream." Activists continue to challenge the legality of the signatures that qualified the initiative based on signature gatherers giving deceptive information to the public.

California -- The San Francisco Chronicle has a podcast of its interview with High Country News's Ray Ring, which accompanies a Sunday article by Ring, which highlights the $1.5 million in contributions from developer Howie Rich which is bankrolling these initiatives across the country.

Washington -- At an event in Everett, Gov. Chris Gregoire restated her opposition to I-933, saying the law would lead to endless lawsuits against local governments. Sightline Institute highlighted a study arguing that many of the land regulations that supposed reduce property values can actually increase their value.

Nevada -- The Review Journal became one of the first major state publications to make the connection between the PISTOL initiative and Howard Rich. The state Supreme Court will be deciding whether the initiative violated the state's single subject rule.

Arizona -- The League of Arizona Cities and Towns has filed a lawsuit against Proposition 207, citing the state rule that ballot measures must identify a source of funding for any costs.

Idaho -- A number of communities are rushing through local environmental and energy conservation ordinances, since the proposed Proposition 2 would only undermine future regulations.

Oregon -- In the state whose Measure 37 is the model for the other states, the town of Beaverton is worried that their rejection of Wal-Mart's plan to build a store that would have disrupted local transit plans will lead to a Measure 37 lawsuit against the town. Proposed "stream buffers" to put a moratorium on building along the city's main waterways have been dropped after property owners threatened lawsuits under Measure 37.

More Resources

Research Roundup

Threatened Children, Heightened Inequality, Katrina Recovery, and State Taxes

In an Overview of Selected Data on Children in Vulnerable Families, the Urban Institute pulls together data on the multiple stresses on children, from abuse to poverty to disabilities, and how poverty can reinforce problems of depression and other problems facing low-income families and their children.

Highlighting rising inequality in the United States, the Economic Policy Institute highlights that, where the richest 1% had 126 times as much wealth as the median family, that group now has 190 times as much wealth.

The Brookings Institution has a new report on Building a Better New Orleans, highlighting both progress and failures in helping low-income residents and renters recover or strengthening planning so that all residents will participate in the economic recovery of the region. They've also produced a Katrina Index to measure recovery in the city.

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy has launched a new State Tax Information Page to make it easier to find tax news and policy analysis for each state.

Multi-state Advertising Campaign Targets Public Employees

Progressive States Network, Progressive States Leaders Denounce Misleading Anti-Public Union Campaign
Associated Press, Montana AG Defends Workers in Wake of Anti-Union Ads
SourceWatch, Center for Union Facts
SourceWatch, Berman & Co.
SourceWatch, Rick Berman
Nathan Newman's LaborBlog, How Corporate Right Lies About Union Corruption

NY: Pataki Vetoes Credit Card Reform Bill

NY A00809-bill to prohibit additional fees on consumers because they have failed to make timely payments to a different creditor.
Warren Reports on the Middle Class, Online Updates and Analysis
Consumer Action, Resources on Universal Default Penalties

Update on Regulatory Takings Initiatives

Community Rights Council, Takings Litigation Handbook: Defending Takings Challenges to Land Use Regulations
Progressive States Network, The Takings Trap

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Eye on the Right

The Center for Union Facts is only the latest in a long line of illustrious front groups for Rick Berman. The man's admitted mission is to save money for corporate clients by fighting for lower wages and benefit packages, as well as opposing even the most common sense regulations. While a full rundown of Berman's work would take more space than we have (check his profile at SourceWatch for more), one example provides a rather illuminating look at the man behind the ads. Berman is the man behind the Employment Policies Institute, a D.C.-based think tank that focuses on economic issues. Sound familiar? You may be confusing it with the Economic Policies Institute, a respected, progressive think thank. The confusion is intentional. Berman aimed to confuse the press by using a familiar-sounding name (he went so far as to steal the typeface for the logo). His think tank's research was bad enough that a Los Angeles Times business columnist actually called them out for "misleading studies."

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Matt Singer
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