Jessica Barnett is a policy analyst for the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.
What’s the definition of political privilege? Getting government to help you elect your favored candidates for public office. That may sound illegal, but it’s standard practice for one special interest group: government union leaders.
Unfortunately for Pennsylvania, government unions have used their exclusive political advantage to block reform, allowing budget deficits to deepen, pension liabilities to soar, schools to fail and jobs to disappear.
Here’s how it works: The state collects political money, including campaign contributions, from government union members and distributes the money to union leaders. The unions then donate to elected officials, who in turn maintain union privileges and block policies union leaders oppose.
Government essentially joins union leaders’ fundraising team, deducting money from public workers’ paychecks — just like taxes.
The result? Government union political action committees (PACs) have spent nearly $40 million on political campaigns in the past decade including millions of dollars spent advocating for policies that stifle Penn-sylvania’s progress.
As staunch advocates of higher state spending (which leads to more dues money), government unions demand more taxes from Pennsylvanians. They have lobbied for higher sales taxes, personal and corporate income taxes, and industry-penalizing severance taxes, stymying job growth and business investment to fund government’s spending addiction.
Adding to their financial recklessness, unions lobbied for additional pension benefits, then denied the existence of the pension crisis for years. As the unfunded liability surpassed $70 billion, union leaders spent members’ money pressuring Governor Wolf to veto meaningful pension reform in 2015.
As pension payments and budget deficits siphon Pennsylvanians’ paychecks, teachers’ unions also strive to kill innovations designed to improve our schools.
They tirelessly lobbied to preserve the “last in, first out” policy that places quality teachers at greater risk of furlough. Despite 50,000 students saved from failing schools through tax credit scholarships, they fought to decrease scholarship funding. They even fought against promising new Education Savings Account legislation to empower parents to customize their child’s education. Clearly, teachers’ union leaders prioritize funding bureaucracies over life-changing, money-saving opportunities for children.
Maintaining the state-run liquor monopoly, preserving costly prevailing wage mandates, and the list goes on, are all funded by a steady stream of government-collected political money.
One simple reform could reverse this unique political privilege and level the political playing field in Pennsylvania: paycheck protection.
This legislation prohibits using public resources to collect government unions’ political money.
Recently, the House State Government Committee passed two versions of paycheck protection: SB 166, which prohibits government collection of campaign contributions, and HB 1174, which stops government from collecting all union political spending, including SuperPAC contributions, while exempting public safety unions.
Under these bills, government unions would still collectively bargain and make political contributions — but without a taxpayer-funded money collector. As a result, union leaders would directly solicit their political money, requiring members’ explicit consent.
This commonsense ethical reform will foster fairer and smarter policy debates that empower communities, businesses and workers.
As lawmakers contemplate these steps toward paycheck protection, they should look to Idaho and Utah for encouragement.
When these states prohibited the state collection of union political money, union members better understood the politics their money supported and gained a louder voice: PAC contributions dropped by 75 percent and 90 percent, without hampering collective bargaining. Pennsylvania union members deserve to have this accountability from their leaders.
What’s more, paycheck protection can help spark an economic shift. In other states, the passage of paycheck protection catalyzed further union reforms. These actions not only restored workers’ rights, but spurred economic reforms, attracted businesses and, ultimately, helped restore each state’s fiscal health.
For instance, Michigan’s sluggish job growth rocketed to 16th in the nation following reform. Wisconsin’s private sector job rate recently hit a historic high and its unemployment claims hit a 30-year low. Indiana businesses specifically referenced union reform in their decision to work in the state.
Pennsylvania’s legislature already has introduced similar union reform. The Open Workforce Initiative prohibits forced union membership and loosens the restrictive union resignation process, which would help make the Commonwealth a more worker and business-friendly state.
Eliminating political privilege nurtures healthy policy debate. Only through meaningful reform can Pennsylvania — and Erie — stand out as the best place to live and work in the Northeast.