Union dues measure now too close to call, poll shows

School spending initiative also has voters split on possible outcome

Proposition 226, the union dues measure that has spurred the costliest initiative fight of the campaign, may be decided in one of the closest races in Tuesday’s primary, according to a new Examiner poll.

The measure, which would require unions to get written consent from members before spending their dues on politics, had a strong lead in polls a few weeks ago. But its support has eroded to the point that analysts say it could be defeated.

In contrast, Proposition 227, the measure to end the state’s bilingual education system, continues to enjoy better than 2-to-1 support, the poll found.

The Examiner poll showed 46 percent of likely primary voters favored Prop. 226, with 42 percent opposed and 12 percent undecided. While the measure appears to have a narrow lead, undecided voters tend to turn against ballot measures in the final days, according to pollsters.

“People are wary of changing the status quo,” said pollster Del Ali of Mason-Dixon Political / Media Research, which conducted The Examiner’s poll.

“When polls show the support for initiatives at under 50 percent, 8 out of 10 times they lose. The exceptions are real controversial measures that have an incredible amount of backing in the last week. But the indication is that this thing has been losing momentum.”

The poll also found voters split over Proposition 223, the measure to limit administrative spending in public school districts to 5 percent of their budget. The so-called “95-5″ measure is backed by only 39 percent of those surveyed, while 42 percent said they opposed it.

The poll of 688 likely primary voters was conducted Tuesday and Wednesday. It has margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

Major media campaign

The major drop in support for Prop. 226 comes as the unions have initiated an expensive media campaign slamming the measure in TV and radio ads.

“They certainly have been all over the airwaves,” said Ann Crigler, director of the Jesse Unruh School of Politics at USC. “They have really raised the concerns of people along a number of different lines: One, that funding for the measure is coming from outside the state, and another that it is taking away the voice of workers and that it follows in the path of other efforts to squelch the underdog.”

The unions also have been fighting a major ground war against the measure, which they say would dramatically cut their political clout. The No on 226 campaign has set up phone banks and launched a door-to-door effort to make sure union members vote.

The result has been a gradual chipping away of support for the measure. An Examiner poll in February showed the measure leading by a 3-1 ratio, with 64 percent of voters in favor and only 21 percent opposed.

“When you’re running these long marathon races, it’s what happens in the end, not the beginning, that counts,” said Walter Johnson, secretary-treasurer of the San Francisco Labor Council. “Right now, we’re going full steam ahead.”

On the money side, the unions enjoy a decided advantage. Labor unions have mounted a $19 million campaign against it. Backers of the proposition, including Gov. Wilson, had raised just $2 million as of May 16.

“They’ve spent unbelievable amounts of money,” said Mark Bucher, an Orange County businessman who was co-author of the measure. “It means we have to work that much harder to make sure the truth gets out.”

Unions have painted the measure in ads as an effort by wealthy conservative Republicans to silence labor on issues important to working families.

Prop. 226 backers have responded by portraying the measure as an attempt to shift control of union dues from labor leaders back to the rank-and-file workers. But Bucher admitted the campaign couldn’t compete with the unions on TV, noting that “we can’t match them dollar for dollar.”

Bilingual measure backed

The Examiner poll found that support was still strong for Prop. 227, which would allow non-English-proficient children only one year of bilingual education before moving them into English-only classes.

Of those surveyed, 62 percent said they favored the measure, and only 27 percent were opposed. Support was running higher among Republicans, who back the proposition by 72 percent, but 54 percent of Democrats polled also said they planned to vote “yes.”

“When you have a strong majority and even a strong majority of Democrats for it, I don’t see any scenario where it loses,” Ali said.

The robust support comes despite President Clinton’s strong public stand against the measure. All four major gubernatorial candidates also oppose Prop. 227.

Opponents of the measure have likened it Proposition 187, the 1994 measure that sought to cut government benefits and education to illegal immigrants. They say it will force schools into a “one-size-fits-all” program that may short-change some children who don’t come to school speaking English.

But proponents, including Palo Alto software engineer Ron Unz, have capitalized on concerns among many Californians, especially foreign-born parents, that bilingual programs are failing their kids.

“People are concerned about the quality of education in the schools, and they want some kind of solution,” Crigler said. “Whether this is the right one remains to be seen.”

Another education measure, Prop. 223, showed a slight drop in support from February when 39 percent backed it and 36 percent opposed it.

Supporters argue the measure will force school administrators to cut bureaucratic costs and focus spending on students. But critics of the measure say it could unjustly punish small, rural school districts, which tend to spend more than 5 percent on administration.

Ali said those voters who were now undecided – 19 percent in the poll – most likely would decide against the measure in the final days.

“One thing people have decided . . . is they are not at the point where they want to freeze money,” Ali said. “They’re not at the point where they want to limit spending, even spending on administration.”

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