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Put end to collusion between state and special interests: Jessica Barnett

Posted 12/6/17

Should state government help special interest groups collect political campaign donations? Most Pennsylvanians would instinctively answer “no.” In fact, using government resources for …

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Put end to collusion between state and special interests: Jessica Barnett

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Should state government help special interest groups collect political campaign donations? Most Pennsylvanians would instinctively answer “no.” In fact, using government resources for political purposes is illegal for almost everyone.

But behind the scenes, government union leaders have been living by a different set of rules, forcing taxpayers to subsidize millions of dollars in partisan campaign spending.

Here’s how it works: government collects campaign contributions directly from public workers’ paychecks — just like taxes — and distributes the money to union political action committees (PACs).

That’s right, the state is essentially part of government union leaders’ fundraising team.

Union leaders donate this money to candidates and elected officials, who in turn maintain union privileges and block policies union leaders oppose. No other organization benefits from this unethical political privilege.

Imagine if other political heavyweights — such as the National Rifle Association or Planned Parenthood — received political fundraising help from government. The outcry would be deafening.

Leveraging their unique advantage, government union PACs have become the dominant special interest in Pennsylvania and the largest single contributor of campaign money.

The 14 largest government union political PACs spent more than $35 million on political campaigns in the past decade. For example, these unions helped elect Gov. Tom Wolf in 2014 by donating more than $3.4 million to his campaign. They also gave $3.7 million directly to candidates in 2016.

But these figures are only part of the whole picture. Add in political spending from government union members’ mandatory dues — also collected with taxpayer help — and government union leaders’ influence grows to more than $100 million in the past 10 years.

Government union leaders use their vast influence to help them maintain other privileges harmful to taxpayers and even public workers themselves.

At the local level, unions siphon resources from schools by plucking teachers from the classroom to work full time for the union instead.

These “ghost teachers” often stay on district payroll, receiving a taxpayer-funded salary and benefits.

Although unions sometimes reimburse expenses, ongoing lawsuits allege Reading and Allentown taxpayers are out nearly $2 million in ghost teacher costs.

An eye-opening 22 percent of school districts have a ghost teacher provision in their collective bargaining agreements.

Additionally, government unions enjoy an exemption from workplace democracy. Once elected (or “certified”) to represent a group of public workers, these unions are never required to stand for re-election.

The result? Less than 1 percent of public schoolteachers have had the chance to vote on which union — if any — represents them.

Sadly, taxpayers are unknowingly perpetuating these abuses by helping fundraise for union leaders’ political agenda. But this abuse of public resources could soon end.

The House State Government Committee recently approved a pair of paycheck protection bills designed to restore integrity to this unfair political system.

The first is Senate Bill 166, which prohibits government from collecting and distributing campaign contributions for any organization. This means government would not collect PAC donations or money given directly to political candidates.

The committee also passed House Bill 1174, which contains the same reforms as Senate Bill 166 but also stops the state from collecting union dues earmarked for political activity — such as donations to super-PACs.

The premise of both bills is simple: Mixing public resources and political activity is unfair and unethical.

It is a crime for elected officials to use one dollar of public resources for politics. Lawmakers face ethics investigations and even jail time if they use official telephones to make political calls or state computers to send campaign emails. The same standards should apply to government unions.

With Pennsylvania’s reputation for corruption, our state desperately needs this good government reform.

These bills simply stop public resources from being used to collect and distribute political money. Unions and public workers will remain free to engage in political activity and donate to candidates and causes they believe in — but without taxpayers’ help.

In fact, 80 percent of union households agree that taxpayer resources should not be used to collect campaign contributions, according to polling.

Here’s the bottom line: Taxpayers shouldn’t be the middleman for anyone’s political agenda.

Should the legislation pass the House and be approved by the Senate, Wolf will have a unique opportunity to act on his commitment to ethics reform and finally end this collusion between the state and a major special interest.

Jessica Barnett is a policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.

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