By Peak News Contributor Ben DeGrow

Ben DeGrow is senior policy analyst for the Independence Institute, with a focus on education, union and school finance issues:  

He also keeps his own blog: Mount Virtus


With the legislative session underway, it’s time for a few obligatory half-hearted paybacks to some of the usual interest groups. For the House Democrats, that includes the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. Yesterday the House “kill” committee (aka State, Military and Veterans Affairs) heard HB 1067, what I affectionately have decided to call the Teachers Union Influence Protection Act. The bill would be dead already if a couple Republicans from the committee’s 5-4 majority could have been found to make the vote official. Rather, we’ll have to wait to next Thursday to write the legislation’s obituary.

Upset by insurgent school board reform campaigns in Denver, Jeffco and Douglas County – which achieved varying degrees of success last November – the entrenched interests of the teachers union political machine certainly would like to tilt the playing field by restricting what people can contribute to their opponents. Trying to mirror the same campaign finance scheme that gives unions a 10-to-1 giving advantage over average citizens and most other competing interests, HB 1067 seeks to limit individual contributions to nonpartisan school board (and RTD) candidates to $500 each. Meanwhile, small donor committees, which overwhelmingly are tailor-made to enhance union political muscle, would be able to give up to $5,000.

Unfortunately, politicians in both parties have helped to forward many of the state and national legislative attempts to restrict political speech under the heading of “campaign finance reform.” While many of these measures are designed to protect the power of incumbency, others, like HB 1067, are primarily designed to protect special interest advantages. Colorado House Democrats do deserve some credit for fronting the bill with sponsors from safe Denver seats who are among the caucus’ lowest recipients of union campaign contributions, avoiding the clear pay-to-play connection. Then again, as far as last election cycle goes, some of the teachers unions’ most heavily backed legislative candidates (all Democrats, of course) went down to defeat.

Our state’s teachers unions must feel the natural edge they enjoy in many of the larger local school board elections is threatened. Stanford University professor Terry Moe, through his research on more than 250 California school districts, has documented some of the natural political advantages unions hold in these typically off-year elections. Simply put, low turnouts favor those with a collective organized interest. Add that together with a built-in legal campaign finance edge, and the unions can more easily achieve increases to collective compensation, friendlier work rules and more tax-funded perks.

The proposed Teachers Union Influence Protection Act is just an obligatory attempt that could never win enough traction to see the light of day, at least not in 2012. However, maybe a serious effort instead can be made at legislation that would line up school board elections with general elections. That would be one way to help restore more public interest and involvement in public education.