Under Pennsylvania law, government agencies are permitted to use taxpayer resources to collect and distribute political campaign money on behalf of public employee unions.

There’s an obvious problem of ethics here since public resources that should be devoted to the public interest have instead been co-opted to advance partisan political activities.

But a proposed “paycheck protection” bill would end this practice by prohibiting school districts, and other public employers, from automatically deducting contributions to political action committees out of employee wages.

Campaign finance figures show government unions spent about $69 million in PAC contributions from 2007 to 2021. The teachers’ unions, AFSCME, and SEIU stand out as the biggest spenders among government unions.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest public employee union with about 178,000 members, leads the pack with its Political Action Committee for Education spending more than $17 million since 2007. The Service Employees International Union Committee on Political Education, known as SEIU COPE, comes in second spending about $12 million since 2007. AFSCME also rings the bell with two of its PACs spending more than $1.3 million in the 2021 cycle.

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Taxpayers who do not support the political agenda of the teachers’ unions, and other government unions, have a significant stake in Rep. Ryan Mackenzie’s paycheck protection legislation (HB 2048), which could advance early this year.

“I believe public resources should not be used for political purposes,” Mackenzie said in an email. “My bill would stop individuals from making purely political contributions to political action committees through a government payroll system. Purely political money should not be running through any Pennsylvania government payroll system.”

Mackenzie’s bill fits into a larger package of labor reform measures that would eliminate union mandates such as “maintenance of membership” requirements and “fair share fees” that are incompatible with federal law. The proposed reforms would also provide for greater transparency in the collective bargaining agreements and require public employers to notify employees of their constitutional rights.

During a Nov. 15, 2021, hearing before the House Labor and Industry Committee, Danielle Acker Susanj, vice president and senior legal counsel of the Fairness Center, offered testimony on the need for “paycheck protection” and other legislative proposals designed to safeguard constitutional rights. The Fairness Center is a public interest law firm based in Harrisburg that litigates on behalf of public employees in free speech cases.

“Our firm has represented several clients who resigned from their union and wanted the Commonwealth to stop taking dues and political contributions from their wages,” Susanj said in testimony. “But the deductions continued, even though our clients argue that it is blatantly illegal to force someone to make PAC contributions. We have represented multiple clients who were in this situation after they resigned – until we lawyers got involved. HB 2048 would eliminate the possibility for the constitutional violation our clients have alleged in this situation.”

Paycheck protection would prevent union leaders from using the government payroll system as a conduit to obtain funds explicitly devoted to political causes. Voluntary contributions such as those made to insurance companies, financial institutions and charitable organizations would not be affected under Mackenzie’s bill. Regular union dues that are not entirely political would also be exempted. But rank and file union members should know that a high percentage of their dues do go to political activism.

“It’s shocking that Pennsylvania is still letting taxpayer-funded government bureaucracies get away with siphoning off our public resources to collect and deliver political money to big government unions … It hands these unions unfair advantages that would be illegal for anyone else.”

Americans for Fair Treatment, a nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of First Amendment rights for public employees, has published a breakdown of how the PSEA spent union dues in the 2019–2020 school year. That data shows only 21 percent of this spending went toward representational activities. Some of the larger expenditures included $1.8 million for political mailings and advocacy material and $1.5 million for union officer and employee compensation for their political and lobbying efforts.

In an upcoming report that draws from U.S. Department of Labor figures, AFFT goes into greater detail about how PSEA spends its union dues. In the 2020–2021 school year, for instance, AFFT found that the PSEA put more than $900,000 of dues money into an account called the “Fund for Student Success” that has no discernable relationship to students. In 2018, the money from the account went to support PA Action Alliance, which in turn donates to “Democratic campaign super PACs,” according to AFFT.

So how much money does the PSEA spend for the benefit of the public employees the union claims to represent? Based on its most recent Labor Department filings, AFFT concludes the PSEA spends only about one dollar out of every five to benefit teachers and other members. Evidentially, the rest is devoted to politics, lobbying and union overhead.

Stephen Bloom, vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, views paycheck protection as a vital reform that is long overdue.

“It’s shocking that Pennsylvania is still letting taxpayer-funded government bureaucracies get away with siphoning off our public resources to collect and deliver political money to big government unions,” Bloom said. “It hands these unions unfair advantages that would be illegal for anyone else. Rep. Mackenzie’s bill is a much-needed step to end this archaic practice and protect taxpayers from unwittingly aiding the political agendas of big government union officials.”  

Kevin Mooney (@KevinMooneyDC) is an investigative reporter for the Commonwealth Foundation. He writes for several national publications.

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