With the anticipated Democrat-imposed demise of House Bill 1333, which would have given Colorado teachers monthly discretion to opt in or out of a union, the legislation's biggest opponent — the Colorado Education Association — won a temporary victory. Currently, educators in many districts have as little as 2 weeks during a busy time of the year in which they have to visit the union office or union rep to revoke their membership. The only argument presented by CEA and its favored legislators to oppose HB 1333 was a bogus claim that giving teachers such freedom would undermine the “local control” of privately-negotiated collective bargaining agreements.

Seriously, folks? Clearly, union officials are uncomfortable talking about this issue and would love to make it go away quietly. While their hopes for widespread inattention may be dashed when it comes to this issue of teacher options, they maintain an advantage when it comes to incredible campaign finance reporting logic.

In a post last fall at Public Sector, Inc., I detailed the scheme. All CEA members make automatic contributions to the union's state campaign warchest and have at least one annual refund opportunity through the “Every Member Option” program. Teachers filing the request before December 15 receive $39 in return.

Since these funds are filtered invisibly from individual educator paychecks up through the local union office, the trail of how fungible dollars reach CEA's small donor committee is rather opaque. Under existing campaign finance law, individual contributions of $20 or more must be itemized in reports to the Secretary of State. Anything less is lumped into the “non-itemized” category. But how do you define an individual contribution from automatic payroll deductions of $3.25 (or less) apiece?

It's how we get the clever fiction that the small donor committee (known as Public Education Committee) reports exactly $250,000.00 in “non-itemized” contributions on its most recent report. More than 99 percent of the committee's revenues have been “non-itemized.” Not that this is a new development by any stretch, given some of their previously reported “non-itemized” contribution hauls:

  • October 13, 2010: $220,000.00
  • April 25, 2010: $350,000.00
  • July 16, 2008: $250,000.00
  • July 2, 2008: $480,000.00
  • April 25, 2008: $150,000.00
  • July 12, 2006: $78,000.00

“It's amazing how we end up with so many perfectly round numbers in our non-itemized contributions. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge. Non-itemized. Know what I mean?” … “I beg your pardon!” … “All those non-itemized contributions we deducted.” … “What are you saying, man? Come on out with it!” … “It's a lot of cash. To fund campaigns, political campaigns.”

In one sense, yes. Nearly $600,000 now sits in the Public Education Committee account, which represents about half the cash on hand for 17 registered teachers union political committees. Compiled info on the last few election cycles give a strong hint where teachers union committees probably will direct these dollars. On the most recent report, the Public Education Committee's only expenditure was $5,000 to their sister Wisconsin affiliate for “coalition work.” I wonder what that's about.

In the end, no one disputes the rights of private organizations like the teachers union to raise and spend money on political speech under the same rules as everyone else. But it's only reasonable to ask whether the current system might contain a loophole or two.

What other groups get the benefit of government systems to provide regular collections for their political activities? What other groups can report exactly $250,000.00 in “non-itemized” contributions with a straight face? But perhaps the biggest question that remains: Do we just have to live with it? Or can something be done any time soon to put the election process on a level playing field?