Hardly anyone in Pennsylvania is familiar with the organization known as General Majority, but by November it will be a household name.
General Majority is an example of what are known in the political universe as Super PACs, which were born almost overnight following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United that government cannot limit independent expenditures in elections. Super PACs quickly formed with the ability to legally collect and spend as much money as they want to in order to influence the outcome of an election. Their only restrictions are that they cannot neither contribute directly to candidates nor coordinate efforts with their campaigns.
U.S. District Judge William S. Caldwell recently issued a preliminary injunction allowing General Majority to participate in Pennsylvania elections after the group filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of state law banning corporate and union contributions to political organizations.
How much will General Majority spend in Pennsylvania this year and in which races? It’s hard to say for sure. In its court brief, the PAC stated it “intends to … advocate the election of Democratic legislative candidates in Pennsylvania.”
If the past is prologue, the PAC will likely raise a staggering amount of money from labor unions and bombard Pennsylvanians with television and radio commercials. Last year in New Jersey the PAC spent $8 million to help Democrats win seats in the Garden State legislature. According to the Commonwealth Foundation’s Nathan Benefield, more than $6 million of that total came from unions—nearly $1.2 million from union members’ dues. Another $4.8 million came from another Super PAC called Garden State Forward, which is an arm of the New Jersey Education Association — the state’s largest teachers’ union.
“This should sound an alarm,” stated Benefield. “Union leaders have already declared their plans to spend an unprecedented amount of money in state races in 2014. The AFL-CIO alone is committing $300 million to defeating Republicans.” That $300 million, according to the union’s leaders, will be focused in only five states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida. With Gov. Tom Corbett universally ranked as the nation’s most vulnerable incumbent, it’s reasonable to predict that a sizable chunk of the money will be spent in Pennsylvania.
Even before the presence of General Majority, unions have been an imposing presence in Pennsylvania politics. A report by the Pennsylvania Business Council shows that in the 2011-12 election cycle, labor PACs spent $27.7 million. Millions more are spent on lobbying. An analysis by the Commonwealth Foundation’s Priya Abraham found that in 2013 alone, the Pennsylvania State Education Association teachers union “poured $3.8 million of its members’ dues into ‘political activities and lobbying.’”
Benefield says the reason unions are able to dominate political spending is they have a unique and unfair advantage that no other political organizations enjoy—taxpayers often subsidize their spending. “State and local governments, including school districts, collect public sector union dues and even campaign contributions using public resources, and send a check directly to union leaders,” he stated. Union leaders, he said, leverage that advantage to push policies that benefit themselves at the expense of taxpayers, workers, and even union members.
Pennsylvania’s five largest government unions—PSEA, AFSCME Council 13, SEIU, UFCW 1776, and the PFT—received more than $163 million in revenue last year, mostly collected through automatic deduction of union dues at taxpayer expense. These unions reported spending more than $5.5 million in dues on lobbying and political activity in 2013.
PA union members have stuffed their bosses’ PACs full enough that they are able to do something unheard of in Washington, D.C. — finance a kingpin in the GOP. Liberal Republican Gene DiGirolamo of Bucks County runs the Good Jobs PA PAC through which he funnels money from unions to Republican colleagues whose support he then marshals to support the union agenda.
The Commonwealth Foundation notes there are significant costs to the taxpayers for having government collect union dues and campaign contributions. In Blair County, for instance, a payroll employee spends one work day every two weeks calculating union dues deductions, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars a year.
In recent years several state lawmakers, including two former House Speakers, were imprisoned for diverting public resources toward political campaigns. Yet government unions are permitted to use public resources to support political initiatives.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly is considering—and Gov. Tom Corbett has said he would sign—Paycheck Protection legislation that would end taxpayer-financed collection of dues, fees and PAC money.
“Unions—not taxpayers—should be responsible for collecting member dues, fees and PAC money,” Benefield said. “As Super PACs like General Majority get ready to super-size political spending in Pennsylvania, it’s critical that lawmakers pass Paycheck Protection legislation to draw a bright line between public resources and partisan politics by ending the taxpayer-funded collection of union political money,” he concluded.