Analysis: How Much Does NEA Spend on Politics? Union Poured More Than $4.6 Million Into State Ballot Initiatives

National Education Association headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Wikimedia Commons)

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“How much does the National Education Association spend on politics?”

I’ve been asked that question a thousand times during the two-plus decades I’ve covered teachers unions. Everyone wants a simple answer, but it’s a complex question because there isn’t a single definition of what constitutes politics.

It’s much better to divide and subdivide various union activities and try to quantify those expenditures. With the release of NEA’s 2018-19 disclosure report to the U.S. Department of Labor, we can begin that process.

One of NEA’s many political activities is contributing money to support or oppose ballot initiatives that arise in states that have such referendums. Each active NEA member contributes $20 to the union’s Ballot Measure and Legislative Crises Fund each year. As of last March, that fund had almost $49 million in it.

“Legislative crises” are bills NEA state affiliates support or oppose that are working their way through the legislative process. This enables affiliates in states without ballot initiatives to still receive NEA funding for their lobbying efforts. It is, however, difficult to itemize these grants because the money goes from NEA directly to the affiliates and is generally indistinguishable from the host of other subsidies, grants and reimbursements the national union sends down the line.

Ballot initiative grants are usually different. NEA forwards these contributions directly to the ballot initiative’s campaign committee, which requires the union to report said contribution separately. Working through NEA’s disclosure report, we found 20 such contributions totaling $4,637,500. Here is where that money went:

● $60,000 to Better Boundaries. This Utah initiative placed redistricting in the hands of a commission appointed by the governor and party legislative leaders.

● $40,000 to Citizens Who Support Maine’s Public Schools. It isn’t clear exactly what ballot initiative this was for, but this organization has essentially been a Maine Education Association front group for many years.

● $500,000 to Clean Missouri. Voters approved an initiative to restrict lobbyists, make legislative records available to the public and establish a citizen commission for redistricting.

● $50,000 to Defend Oregon. This group helped defeat four ballot initiatives: to ban taxes on groceries, expand the number of bills subject to a three-fifths majority in the legislature, repeal the law forbidding the use of state resources to apprehend illegal immigrants and prohibit the spending of public funds on abortions.

● $200,000 to Fair Maps Colorado. Voters approved two initiatives to turn over redistricting decisions to a commission.

● $250,000 to Floridians for a Fair Democracy. Voters approved an initiative to restore voting rights to released felons as long as they had not been convicted of murder or sexual offenses.

● $100,000 to Floridians for Tax Fairness. This group was formed to oppose two ballot measures: one to expand a property tax exemption, the other to require a two-thirds majority of the legislature to approve new taxes. The first was narrowly defeated, but the other passed.

● $385,000 to Great Schools Now. This union-backed Arizona group was responsible for Proposition 207, which would have raised tax rates to fund education. The state Supreme Court removed it from the ballot for understating the magnitude of the tax increase.

● $220,000 to Great Schools, Thriving Communities. This Colorado group sought to establish state tax brackets. Voters rejected them.

● $1 million to the Greater Wisconsin Committee. This grant was made Oct. 16, 2018, but there were no initiatives on the November ballot. Since the Greater Wisconsin Committee is almost entirely devoted to electing union-friendly candidates, I can only surmise the money was meant in some way to assist in the election of Tony Evers as governor.

● $25,000 to Insure the Good Life. Nebraska voters approved a Medicaid expansion.

● $250,000 to the Maryland Promise Committee. Voters approved using video lottery revenue for education.

● $50,000 to Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future. This group opposed an initiative to repeal tax increases that had been approved by the legislature in March 2018. It helped file a legal challenge against the initiative for being legally insufficient, and the state Supreme Court struck it from the ballot.

● $100,000 to Oregonians United Against Profiling. This was another group opposed to the measure that would have repealed Oregon’s ban on the use of public resources to apprehend illegal immigrants.

● $250,000 to Our Oregon. It appears this contribution also went to fend off the four ballot initiatives opposed by Defend Oregon.

● $100,000 to Our Schools Now. This Utah group sought to increase the gas tax to fund education. Voters rejected the proposal.

● $250,000 to Preserve Our Hawaii. This group opposed a measure calling for a state constitutional convention. Voters agreed to reject it.

● $500,000 to Stop Deceptive Amendments. This North Carolina group opposed all six constitutional amendments the legislature placed on the ballot. Voters rejected two amendments that would have given the legislature certain appointment powers, but approved additional rights for crime victims, protection for hunting and fishing, voter ID and an income tax rate cap.

● $57,500 to Votes Idaho Company. The only reference I could turn up to this group is a spot on the progressive ActBlue donation site. The contribution was made in April, so I don’t think it’s connected to a proposed 2020 education funding initiative.

● $250,000 to Yes on Quality Schools. This was the local parcel tax measure to help pay for the contract settlement made with United Teachers Los Angeles after its January strike. Voters rejected it.

Having spent less than 10 percent of its available war chest in 2018-19, NEA has considerable resources to commit to ballot initiatives in 2020, if it so chooses. We can expect a substantial grant to the Schools and Communities First initiative in California. We may also see many others, as the union attempts to leverage its teacher activism of the past two years into funding gains.

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