Taxpayer funding for politics is a scandal for politicians, but not for labor

Matthew J. Brouillette CEO, Commonwealth Foundation
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In Pennsylvania, legislators can and do go to prison for using taxpayer resources for politics. Just recently, a State Senator from the Philadelphia suburbs, LeAnna Washington, was charged with felony corruption-related offenses for using her official taxpayer-paid staff for her campaign.

Yet government unions use taxpayer resources for political purposes from Philadelphia to Erie and everywhere in between, including right under the Capitol Dome. And it’s all perfectly legal.

Unions like AFSCME, the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers, and the Pennsylvania State Education Association collect campaign contributions at taxpayer expense across our state without a second glance, and they’re fighting to defend their special exemption. The “automatic dues deduction” for public-sector unions allows government unions — and only government unions — to use taxpayer resources to collect campaign contributions and union dues used for lobbying and political activity.

Government union leaders from state affiliates of SEIU, AFL-CIO, AFT, NEA and AFCSME have come out swinging against legislation in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly that would require unions to collect their own political money without taxpayer subsidies.  Not surprisingly, the government unions have declared this reform a “war on workers.” But, in truth, the union bosses themselves have declared war not just on workers but on the state’s taxpayers.

Here’s how it works: Government union bosses contractually negotiate the automatic deduction of union dues and campaign contributions from employees’ paychecks. Their negotiating partners? The very politicians they helped elect to office. These funds, collected through taxpayer-funded payroll services, are then sent to union headquarters and used for politics, perpetuating the government union power cycle.

This power cycle generates a political bank account that’s nothing to sneeze at. In Pennsylvania, government unions spent nearly $5 million in dues on political activity and lobbying in 2012 alone, and that doesn’t include more than $2.5 million in PAC contributions to sympathetic politicians. The results are tangible: Union politicking blocked pension reform and liquor store privatization in our state, and nearly all of their resources were collected by the same taxpayers who are suffering as a consequence.

Imagine if the National Rifle Association claimed the right to force taxpayers to collect lobbying funds and campaign donations on their behalf.  The outcry would be deafening, and rightly so. This is no different. Government unions can — and should –play by the same rules as everyone else. Paycheck protection is not about silencing union voices in politics; it’s about leveling the political playing field between government union leaders and their employers, the taxpayers.

Paycheck protection simply means that government unions will have to look their members in the face, ask for their dues, and explain how the union plans to spend their money, just like every other private association in state politics. Right now, they don’t, and taxpayers are on the hook for the dues collection bill.

The injustice gets worse. In addition to this taxpayer subsidy, public sector unions co-opt members’ political speech in the process. Matt, a teacher with the Avon Grove school district told Commonwealth: “It’s going against, not only my beliefs and morals and values, but it’s something I don’t want to support [and] I don’t have a choice.”

While battles to regain the freedom that Matt so values have recently been fought and won in other states, taxpayers in Pennsylvania and across the nation still unknowingly fund their own opposition. Paycheck protection would do one thing that both sides of the political aisle should agree on: Stop spending taxpayer money on politics. It wouldn’t keep unions from collecting dues and campaign contributions — they would simply have to do it like everyone else. That, in turn, would empower public employees to hold union leaders accountable, stopping the abuse of workers and taxpayers and ending the government union power cycle.

Matthew J. Brouillette, a former history teacher, is the president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.