Massachusetts Union Complaint Against Gov. Baker Could Backfire

The Massachusetts Teachers Association and AFT Massachusetts filed a complaint today with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission claiming a TV ad featuring Gov. Charlie Baker violates federal “pay-to-play” laws.

The ad is in support of Question 2, which would allow an additional 12 charter schools per year in the state. The complaint alleges that several executives with financial firms that manage the state pension fund have contributed to the Yes on 2 campaign, and that because Gov. Baker appoints two of the nine members on the pension investment committee the contributions were illegal donations – not to the ballot measure campaign, but to Gov. Baker’s re-election bid in 2018.

“Governor Baker’s political fortunes are clearly tied to the fate of Question 2, and it is appalling that ads starring him are being financed by donations from Wall Street fund managers who have an interest in currying favor with the administration,” said Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

You can read the complaint and judge its merits for yourself. It seems to be an odd choice of charges for teachers’ unions to make.

Claiming that a contribution to a ballot initiative is essentially the same as a contribution to a candidate could dismantle much of a union’s political power and open it up to similar charges regarding the use of dues money. Unions are permitted to use dues money for initiative campaigns and independent expenditures, but not for contributions to political candidates. If the SEC or other federal agency should start making broader interpretations of what constitutes candidate donations, unions could find themselves in a lot of trouble.

For example, someone could file a complaint that the spending of MTA and AFT Massachusetts against Question 2 is an illegal donation to the reelection campaign of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who has been prominently featured in the No on 2 campaign. But that wouldn’t hold water, would it?

“Currying favor” is the basis for most political campaign contributions. The Massachusetts unions and their parent affiliates not only know this, but practice it religiously. The practice can be subtle, or not really that subtle, like the example in this e-mail from Nikki Budzinski, the labor outreach coordinator for Hillary Clinton’s campaign:

I think that NEA is open to doing the full $180K to the Victory Fund. They can do this amount in 2015 and the same amount in 2016.

Then in the very next paragraph:

[NEA executive director] John Stocks raised a issue about teacher shortage that he thought would be a good message for their members and the profession at large if the Secretary would want to weigh in.

This newfound zeal to put an end to secret deals and payoffs is commendable. Maybe it should start at home.