Website 'follows the money' certain unions give to Pennsylvania legislators
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HARRISBURG -- A conservative political group that was created to fight costly legislative pensions now has a new goal -- telling voters how much money legislators get from state government labor unions.
The 18-month-old Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania opened a website last week with the names of all 253 House and Senate members, listing how much (if any) campaign cash each lawmaker got from government unions for the last three years.
The site, www.paunionmoney.com, is the latest version of "follow the money," the famous phrase that government whistleblower Deep Throat told Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward during President Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal in the early 1970s.
The first page of the website has a made-up photo of a well-dressed guy portraying a lobbyist handing a stack of bills to a guy portraying a politician.
The purpose is "to help taxpayers track government (or public sector) union influence in Pennsylvania," Citizens Alliance spokesman Leo Knepper said. "It will allow people to easily access information about the financial contributions of public sector unions that are made to political campaign committees associated with legislators."
The site is subdivided by House and Senate members and by Republicans and Democrats. By clicking on a lawmaker's name, a person can see how much that legislator got from union political action committees in 2010, 2011 and so far in 2012. By clicking on the dollar amount, a visitor can see which union made the donation.
The unions include the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, state government's largest union; the State Employees International Union; the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which is always one of the top donors to politicians; and two political action committees established by Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks, who has close ties to unions.
Mr. Knepper is especially critical of Mr. DiGirolamo and other GOP legislators who have received union campaign cash. Republicans have controlled both the House and Senate by wide margins in the 2011-12 term, he said, and yet they haven't enacted laws sought by pro-business and conservative groups. These include a right-to-work law, such as Indiana has; it forbids workers from being forced to join a union and pay dues.
Wisconsin and Michigan have also taken steps to weaken links between their legislators and unions, Mr. Knepper said. He criticized Pennsylvania legislators for failing to pass a bill that would reduce the number of construction projects where workers are paid higher wages, called "prevailing wages," also called union wages. The Legislature has also failed to act on a bill to turn state-owned liquor stores over to private owners.
"In Pennsylvania, where the supposedly pro-taxpayer Republican party has its largest majority in over 50 years, why has nothing changed?" he added. "Because government union money flows to members of both parties."
Mr. DiGirolamo makes no apologies for his contributions. He said his job is to "represent the people in my district" and insists he properly advocates for their interests. Bucks and other counties near Philadelphia have changed in population makeup over the past 20 years, and what once were solid Republican bastions have grown more moderate/liberal as working-class people and Democrats moved out of the city.
Mr. DiGirolamo has a political action committee that contributes to other GOP lawmakers, with much of the money coming from unions. If the dozen or so House Republicans who receive his funding join with all 91 Democrats on an issue, it's hard for House leaders to get the minimum of 102 votes needed to pass a bill.
The Citizens Alliance was formed early last year by former state Rep. John Kennedy, a Republican from Cumberland County who angered his colleagues in the late 1980s by opposing efforts to increase their taxpayer-funded pensions.
CAP generally opposes Democrats and moderate Republicans. A CAP-supported candidate in the May primary ousted longtime Republican Rep. Rick Geist of Altoona. The alliance works for candidates who agree not to seek a state-funded pension, as almost all legislators now do. Pension costs for lawmakers and teachers are becoming a major strain on the state budget.
Wythe Keever, a PSEA spokesman, refuted the Knepper remarks. He said PSEA members are "working-class Pennsylvanians -- teachers, school bus drivers, nurses, child care providers, sanitation workers, EMTs and more."
He said the "so-called" Citizens Alliance "apparently would prefer to leave all the political contributions to be made by wealthy individuals and big corporations. All our members' political contributions are voluntary, and no dues dollars are used. And we plan to keep it up."
AFSCME's David Fillman said his union "gives to both parties," including Senate Republican leader Dominic Pileggi of Delaware County, also outside Philly.
"We are combatting [big corporations], which are trying to rip out prevailing-wage laws, make Pennsylvania a right-to-work state and take away employee collective bargaining," he said. "The goal of big business is to go after us."
SEIU's Kathy Jellison said her union aims "to protect the middle class." She also said her members' political donations are voluntary and don't come from union dues. She called on the Citizens Alliance to "tell where their money is coming from."
She said Mr. Knepper should "look at big business contributions to legislators, which much outweigh union contributions."
First Published September 9, 2012 12:00 am