A copy of a political direct mail advertisement states: "Paid for by Citizens to Protect PA Jobs. Jewell Lester, Treasurer."
By Chris Potter / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican legislators slog through a summer-long budget fight, things are looking grim for public schools and human service agencies that rely on state funding. But look on the bright side: Thanks to advertising by groups with inscrutable names, at least bulk-mailing firms and TV executives have reason to smile.
Turn on your TV, for example, and you’ll likely see America Works USA, a group tied to national Democrats, faulting a Republican budget proposal that “lets oil and gas drillers off the hook, fails to fund education and deepens the deficit.”
“Let’s save jobs,” counters a spot aired by Citizens to Protect PA Jobs. “Don’t raise taxes on Pennsylvania-made energy.”
Both organizations are what the IRS calls 501(c)(4) entities — nonprofits that can engage in political activity without identifying donors, as traditional political campaigns must do.
Attacks by so-called “dark money” groups aren’t new. But observers are troubled by the volume of the ads, especially in a budget crisis.
“We’re definitely seeing dark money flooding into state and municipal politics,” said Paul Ryan, senior legal counsel at Campaign Legal Center, a national political reform group. “It’s potentially disastrous, because it undermines voters’ right to know who is trying to influence them.”
“We’re seeing the nationalization of our state politics, and a campaign cycle that never ends,” said Franklin & Marshall College pollster Terry Madonna.
The stakes are even higher than the state’s $30 billion budget would suggest. Democrats want a new tax on natural gas drilling, increased education spending and property tax relief, paid for by hikes in the income and sales tax. Republicans broadly oppose tax hikes. Also dividing Harrisburg is how to address a $50 billion shortfall in public employee pensions.
Such sums explain the scope of the current media blitz, which includes radio spots by Americans for Prosperity, another conservative 501(c)(4) group. But the campaigns of America Works and Citizens to Protect PA Jobs may be the most visible.
While it’s too soon to gauge total spending, America Works has already spent more than $1 million on TV, radio and mailings, said spokesman Jared Leopold. Citizens to Protect PA Jobs reports spending more than $1.4 million on public advocacy between April and June.
In addition to its severance tax TV spot, the latter group has sent out mailers urging voters to “Tell Governor Tom Wolf: Support Pension Reform Today!”
The mailer suggested such reforms would “secure our workers’ earned benefits,” a claim that left one public sector union official nonplussed.
“I don’t know what pension reform they are talking about — it doesn’t have a bill number,” said David Fillman, executive director of AFSCME Council 13. As for the mailer’s sponsor, “I’m assuming it’s a corporate group.”
Indeed, Citizens is a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, said chamber president and CEO Gene Barr. “We’ve made no bones about the fact that this is an operation of ours.”
Like other 501(c)(4) groups filling airwaves and mailboxes, Citizens doesn’t disclose its funders. One prominent backer, however, is John Arnold, a former Enron trader who has spearheaded efforts to address public pensions nationwide. Mr. Arnold and his wife, Laura, have reported giving between $100,000 and $500,000 to Citizens to Protect PA Jobs. A foundation bearing their name is also active in pension issues, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
Josh McGee, the foundation’s vice president of public accountability, says it offers “objective analysis to help people understand the pension issue.”
Mr. Fillman was dubious about that claim after hearing of Mr. Arnold’s involvement. “Their whole purpose is to reward his Wall Street friends” by replacing traditional pensions with 401(k)-type plans, he said.
Mr. Fillman himself presides over a union-backed initiative, the CLEAR Coalition, which has aired its own TV ads in some areas. And Republicans say Democrats are escalating the use of outside money.
America Works USA is allied with the Democratic Governors Association, which like its Republican counterpart has used a 501(c)(4) to wage state battles across the country.
Pennsylvania Republicans are especially upset by an America Works mailing campaign, which targets GOP legislators in their districts. The mailers fault them for backing a budget proposal that spent less on education than Mr. Wolf wants, and for not backing a tax on natural gas.
“My constituents can’t stand this type of behavior,” said state Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver, a mailer target. “It does nothing more than cause frustration” and “is not productive for negotiations” amid a budget crisis.
Some also say America Works, whose campaign praises Mr. Wolf and features his photo, is a thinly disguised campaign on Mr. Wolf’s behalf, rather than a typical issue ad. Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans, called the America Works campaign a “gift” to Mr. Wolf. “It’s advancing his budget, his proposal and his stature.”
“From what I’ve seen, the mailers are laying out lawmakers’ records,” countered Jeffrey Sheridan, a spokesman for Mr. Wolf. “Legislators should own that.”
Indeed, Republicans aren’t exactly shrinking from the mailers. Mr. Christiana, for one, posted a copy of one on his Facebook page, along with a pledge to stand firm against Mr. Wolf’s proposals. Another local target is Cranberry state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a conservative whose opposition to Mr. Wolf is hardly a secret. After the mailers hit, he said, “All the calls we’ve had were supportive of my position.”
Mr. Leopold, the America Works spokesman, said the mailers targeted “a few dozen House and Senate districts.” He discounted the idea that the mailers may only stiffen GOP spines: “They are talking to their allies now, but it’s important for people to know how they are voting.”
“This is an aggressive debate because there are big issues at stake,” he added. “We’ve seen a lot of money on the other side too.”
Barry Kauffman, executive director of political watchdog group Common Cause, worried such fights can “force people to dig in their heels.” Given the importance of a budget deal, he said, “It’s time for both sides to tell their supporters to back off.”
Voters should also know more about who those supporters are, he added: “A lot of these ads are being done by people with bigger goals in mind.”
One measure to increase transparency, Mr. Kauffman said, is Senate Bill 11, which would require independent groups to disclose their funders. That and other provisions “would put us in the top third of states” for regulating political spending.
All but one of SB 11’s 16 co-sponsors are Democrats. But perhaps ironically, this summer’s partisan strife may create a bipartisan consensus for reform.
Mr. Metcalfe chairs the House committee responsible for laws concerning political spending. He said he hoped to hold hearings on the matter this year, especially given “this unprecedented level of campaign operations out of D.C.”
Voters, he said, “should have access to who is spending what.”
Staff writer Karen Langley contributed. Chris Potter: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2533.
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