A common refrain from the political Left is “get money out of politics.” A recent study released by left-of-center watchdog group Colorado Ethics Watch titled “Spend, Baby, Spend: How Oil and Gas Controls Colorado” lamented the $800,000 spent by the oil and gas industry on political donations in the last four years.
This same group does not have the same concern regarding public sector unions’ financial influence in politics, which topped $2.7 million in the 2010 election cycle alone and $800,000 in the 2012 election cycle. The total of over $3.5 million is second only to lawyers and lobbyists, who spent about $3.7 million during the same time frame.
Public sector union financial influence in politics differs from private sector industries in several ways. First, these labor organizations represent state and local government employees, whose salaries are paid with taxpayer dollars. The money unions use to influence elections comes from dues withdrawn directly from members’ paychecks – similar to tax withholdings. This scheme provides a steady, predictable cash flow.
Many private industries, even if they give more to one party than the other, do maintain a modicum of balance. Not so with Colorado public sector unions. Online databases report only $4,500 of government unions’ political giving went to Republican candidates and causes while more than $808,000 favored Democratic candidates and causes. This is a difference of 0.0055 percent versus 99.994 percent.
Here’s how it works: public sector unions receive money directly from members’ paychecks before the employee sees their paycheck. Then they use that money to support candidates and ballot measures that will increase taxes, spending, and debt, which often leads to even more government employees who then can become union members.
In 2012, over 80 percent of the 53 public sector union-favored candidates won their elections for State House and Senate. Out of the $674,426 given to individual candidates, $588,736 went to those who went on to win their races, a dollar success rate of 87.3 percent.
Union-backed candidates, now lawmakers, paid them back with two bills beneficial to Colorado public sector unions. In 2013, the General Assembly passed Senate Bills 25 and 213, which Gov. John Hickenlooper later signed into law.
SB 25 mandates that fire districts allow collective bargaining if requested by the firefighters’ union and determines the negotiating procedures. Under the old system, each fire district would decide whether to allow bargaining, and those that did determined their own procedures. Colorado Professional Firefighters was the largest contributing public sector union in 2012, with $179,300 in donations going exclusively to Democrats. By contrast, police unions only gave about $10,100 in donations to both parties, and had no major legislative victories in the recent session.
SB 213 only goes into effect if funded by Amendment 66, a massive $1 billion tax increase to boost K-12 education spending. Predictably, the Colorado Education Association (CEA) recently pledged $250,000 to the pro-tax increase campaign. Colorado teachers unions gave over a quarter of a million dollars in the 2012 election cycle, overwhelmingly going to Democrats who supported SB 213. This money came from union dues.
CEA members can opt out of having their dues automatically withdrawn from their paycheck, though in many cases during a brief time frame. They also may opt out of having dues underwrite political campaigns, but have to ask again every year by a December deadline. Public sector unions resist announcing these options out of fear that cash flow will slow down dramatically when the withholding isn’t automatic. Perhaps if the Douglas County teachers union would release their totals, we could have some idea as to whether or not this was true.
Public sector unions have enormous and highly successful influence on Colorado politics. If we are going to lament money in politics, let’s not forget that plenty is coming out of our own wallets to be used by people who want to shrink our savings and expand the size of government.
Max Kleber was an intern with the Independence Institute during Summer 2013. His research report titled the Public Sector Union Influence in Colorado Legislature Elections was the basis for this column.