By Jessica Barnett
Public resources and political activity are like oil and water—they don’t mix. That’s what we’re told, but the truth might surprise you.
Because of a legal carveout for special interests, Pennsylvania has been mixing public resources and politics for years. But that carveout could soon end.
It is illegal for elected officials to mix political business and the people’s business. Even sending a costless fundraising email from a state-owned computer will land any elected official in hot water.
Who can forget former Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin and former House Speaker John Perzel, both of whom violated the bright line between politics and public resources? They went to jail for essentially forcing taxpayers to help them maintain political power. The downfall of such high-profile politicians shows that subverting public resources for political gain will not be tolerated. Except when it is.
Pennsylvania government regularly collects and distributes tens of millions of dollars earmarked for politics on behalf of one special interest group: government union leaders. Not coincidentally, they happen to be one of the biggest political spenders.
This political money, both union dues earmarked for political activity and political action committee (PAC) contributions, is deducted from workers’ paychecks — just like taxes — then forwarded to government unions and their political organizations.
In turn, union leaders have used PACs to give more than $40 million directly to political candidates in the last 10 years. In the 2016 election alone, they donated over $400,000 to successful Democratic candidates for state treasurer, attorney general, and auditor general; in 2015, they directed $340,000 to Democratic judicial candidates; and in 2014, $3.4 million went to Governor Wolf’s campaign.
A comparison of government union spending with that of the natural gas industry — often criticized for its heavy influence in Harrisburg — offers some crucial perspective. The eight largest natural gas PACs spent $1.1 million during the 2016 elections. The top eight government union PACs spent more than six times that amount — $7.1 million.
PAC contributions, however, capture only a portion of taxpayer-aided government union political spending. Since 2007, government union leaders spent an additional $55 million on politics from a portion of union members’ dues explicitly dedicated to “political activities and lobbying.” These union dues fund TV and radio ads, lobbying outlays, PAC solicitations, donations to SuperPACs and political communication with members.
For example, Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) members’ dues fund the union’s magazine, The Voice, which regularly endorses politicians, including Katie McGinty, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and calls on members to lobby against policies like pension reform.
The United Food & Commercial Workers union, which represents liquor store clerks, infamously spent more than $1 million on TV and radio ads opposing liquor privatization — a highly popular reform that has the backing of most union households. Union members and taxpayers, were forced to help promote this political activity, even if they disagree.
All told, government unions have spent an astonishing $96 million on politics over the past decade, collected with taxpayers’ aid. Clearly, public resources and politics are, indeed, mixing. Paycheck protection would fix this ethical blind spot.
In February, the state Senate passed SB166, which prohibits using public resources to collect money earmarked for politics. Under the bill, government union leaders would still be able to collect money and spend it on politics; they would just do it like everyone else — without government help.
Polling shows two-thirds of Pennsylvania registered voters support paycheck protection and 80 percent of union households agree that taxpayer resources should not be used to collect campaign contributions.
With the support of the public and the Senate, state House members must now take the next step by passing this bill and sending it to the governor. If Wolf is serious about improving ethics in Harrisburg and reforming state government, he will sign it.
Public resources and politics were never meant to mix. It’s time to close this legal loophole, once and for all.
Jessica Barnett is a policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.