March 28, 2016

Gov. Charlie Baker. Mike Deehan photo.

The Boston Globe has recently done some fine reporting on Governor Charlie Baker’s resort to dark money in pursuit of his political and policy goals. On Saturday March 26 the Globe’s editorial board weighed in with Baker needs to be transparent with shadowy dollars. I hope this inaugurates a sustained effort to shine a light on dark and shadowy big money in politics. Dark money is turning the citizen’s democracy into a rich person’s farce-ocracy

I discussed the Massachusetts situation a few weeks ago in Governor of Dark Money noting that Governor Baker’s key political and policy goals, control of the Republican State Committee and the charter schools campaign, are both supported by untraceable dark money. Since then the Globe’s Frank Phillips has reported Fund-raising loophole fills Mass. GOP coffers on yet another sketchy fund raising scheme. Add to this the fact that in the most recent gubernatorial race more money was spent by “independent” Super PACs than by the two major party campaigns.  That’s dangerous.

Let’s consider for a moment Great Schools Massachusetts, the umbrella group that will spend up to $18 million on a referendum to increase the number of charter schools in Massachusetts. Where, you might ask, is the $18 million coming from? Good question but we don’t know and we have no legal right to know. However, Great Schools Massachusetts lists its coalition partners on its web site and one stands out. The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance is there – the very same Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance I’ve celebrated for representing “everything wrong with American politics - the casual use of false and misleading arguments, greed, dark money.”

So when MFA shows up as a supporter, something smells putrid. Mass Fiscal’s Form 990 tax return is public, but it doesn’t say anything about the source of its funding. That’s too bad because on MFA’s 2014 form 990 it reports contributions of $801,700 up from $356,842 in 2013 and $184,186 in 2012.  Part I of Form 990 requires the filer to describe the organization’s mission or most significant activities and MFA answers: “Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance is a non-partisan, non-profit 501(c)(4) organization committed to improving the quality of life in Massachusetts by advocating for fiscal responsibility and further government transparency.”

Gold star to anyone who noticed that this Great Schools Massachusetts’ coalition partner’s mission has nothing to do with education.  I’ll save you the suspense of reading MFA’s form 990s for 2012 and 2013, except to say it didn’t express any interest in educational policy in those years either. On its 2013 form 990 it proclaimed itself a non-partisan organization “committed to improving the quality of life in Massachusetts by advocating for fiscal responsibility through right of center economic, fiscal and good government solutions.” In its 2012 Form 990 Schedule C MFA said it had done “mailings and other outreach activities to support, or oppose, various candidates during the 2012 election.”

So what about MFA’s dedication to “fiscal responsibility and further government transparency.”  MFA offers neither evidence of fiscal responsibility nor transparency about its own funders – who have increased their investment from $184,186 in 2012 to $801,700 in 2014. To look over the qualifications of the staff it doesn’t appear that anyone has a background in government accountability work, but several have backgrounds in Republican Party politics.

Actually MFA is an extreme “free market” (think Koch Brothers) front. It doesn’t have any interest in education whatsoever, but it does have an interest in destroying unions. Charter schools would damage public sector teachers unions. As Alexander Hertel-Fernandez of the Scholars Strategy Network has written, conservative organizations are “challenging the last bastion of union strength, (and) these strategies threaten the very existence of organized labor in the United States.”

That may or may not be the prime motivating factor for the money behind Great School Massachusetts, but MFA’s presence shows it is for some allies. As Hertel-Fernandez suggests, the right wing is playing a long game here.

A functioning democracy would at the very least provide that citizens understand where that $18 million is coming from, the better to assess the motivations behind it. But we don’t have a functioning democracy, we have a campaign finance farce-ocracy.

Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, Great Schools Massachusetts

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