On the face of it, this Denver Post article by Yesenia Robles looks like pretty standard reporting of political campaign contributions for the currently hot Denver Public Schools board election. (Then again, maybe we shouldn't take for granted the wonderful kind of transparency and fast access to campaign records that make this kind of reporting possible.) Those of us following the race here in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains are not terribly surprised as some might be to see the local teachers union office bestow nearly $90,000 in contributions to its two favored candidates. Rather, what I found most interesting was the seemingly bland final paragraph:
The Colorado Education Association also filed a finance report Monday showing a total of $192,358.80 in contributions. All but $39 were classified as nonitemized contributions, or donations less than $20 from different, unidentified donors.The information contained in this sentence isn't surprising in any way. That it was reported so matter-of-factly in a major newspaper article is somewhat noteworthy. Yet for serious political and policy junkies, reading these two sentences as a story ending is equivalent to arriving at the end of a "whodunit" mystery novel only to find the perpetrator is an unknown character whose criminal motives are left unaddressed.
In this case, to follow the story you have to go back nearly nine years. Our state's campaign finance laws were rewritten by a 2002 state constitutional amendment, which was sold to voters as a reform promoting clean and honest elections. Created by the 2002 amendment, small donor committees now are a key feature of the electoral landscape for our local, state legislative, gubernatorial, and other statewide candidates. These committees were tailor-made for unions: governed by small limits on what can be received from individual donors but able to give 10 times as much to candidates as persons or other committees can give. Contributions received under 20 dollars are not considered "itemized" and don't have to be reported individually.
Since registered in late 2003, the Colorado Education Association's small donor "Public Education Committee" has reported taking in just over $3.7 million. Of that amount, less than $15,000 (or roughly 0.4 percent) has been collected as "itemized" contributions from identifiable people. The rest of the "contributions" were hardly contributions at all -- not in the sense you might imagine of a person writing a check or freely handing cash to a committee. They are funds processed through automatic payroll deductions taken from thousands of CEA members across the state and deposited in to the small donor committee using some sort of accounting gimmicks.
Over the course of the school year government resources are co-opted to help take $39 from each full-time CEA member to fund state elections. Union officials deem this "Every Member Option" (EMO) fund -- collected alongside regular dues but not reported as a separate line item deduction on a teacher's pay stub -- as "voluntary" because each year a member can request a refund before December 15.
If they are aware of the program (not all membership enrollment forms disclose the EMO, nor with equal clarity), or not too busy to forget about it. A failed 2006 rule-making attempt by the Secretary of State to require individual, voluntary authorizations of union member political contributions was rejected by a judge who accepted CEA officials' arguments that such an endeavor would be too much of an undue burden on them.
Several of the local CEA offices have adopted their own refundable EMO political program. Teachers lucky enough to work in one of those districts and belong to the union have to fill out two requests if they don't want any of their hard-earned funds spent on candidates and causes they may not support. Many of the union locals report the individual refunds as line-item expenditures, even though some are less than $20 for the whole year.
But not CEA. Once upon a time they realized that no one could make them disclose precisely who among their members -- or even how many -- had asked for the $39 back. The "Public Education Committee" takes in less money per year than one could reasonably estimate is collected through the EMO. There's no way to determine what share of any individual member teacher's EMO ends up in the small donor committee. Perhaps that's why refund checks sent back to members indicate the returned funds come from a general CEA account rather than from the separate "Public Education Committee."
How can it all work out this way? Your guess is as good as mine. Union officials, lawyers and accountants are drawing it up behind closed doors, and they're not talking publicly. Years after Colorado's campaign finance amendment went into effect, this serious loophole remains, and public sector unions by far are the biggest beneficiary.
Just one somewhat innocuous sentence at the end of a Denver Post story. Where "contributions" can't be considered contributions according to any reasonable definition of the word, and so much of the sordid story is left untold.