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Mike Antonucci: Follow the Money

Alexander Russo | October 16, 2012

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You’ve probably never heard of Mike Antonucci, but you might be glad — or angry — that there’s someone like him around. Described by Education Week as “the nation’s leading observer — and critic — of the two national teachers’ unions and their affiliates,” Antonucci writes an insider blog called Education Intelligence Agency that tracks teachers union revenues, membership, campaign spending, and the occasional scandal.

On the strength of his research, he’s been published in the Wall Street JournalEducation Next, and quoted as an expert in a long list of mainstream publications.  (Even when he’s not quoted by name, you can be reasonably sure that a reporter writing about union spending spent heaps of time talking to Antonucci.)

Not surprisingly, what Antonucci has to say isn’t always uplifting:  “At the rate we are going, California will soon consist solely of public employee unions, politicians, industries that service ballot initiative campaigns, and Disneyland,” he wrote in a recent blog post (see California Unions Hate All Hedge Fund Managers… Almost).

Read below for some of Antonucci’s thoughts about how to track union (and others’) spending on campaigns and candidates, and whether LA’s relatively stringent disclosure rules really capture the full extent of what’s being spent to help union candidates win elections.  Spoiler alert — he doesn’t.

The main problem with following campaign spending is that there’s no simple answer to the questions that reporters and public officials have, according to Antonucci.

“Everybody wants to write a story that says the unions spend $6m on political campaigns,” he says.  “But we’re constantly challenged on the numbers.”

For most parts of California, the best place for information on campaign spending is the Secretary of State’s website, SOS.CA.GOV, according to Antonucci  There you can find union spending on candidates and on issues, as well as on general funds.And, since most political spending on candidates comes from the state teachers union to locals – most locals don’t have their own PACs — the SOS site can tell you who’s being funded and how much.

But there are three different kinds of campaign spending going on, and so anyone following the money has to follow different strands. The first are candidate PACs, which are perhaps the most familiar kind of campaign donation organization.  The second are “issue” PACs which are “just like candidate PACs except they are devoted to ballot initiatives and referenda,” according to Antonucci.  Last but not least are independent expenditures (IEs), which contain “all other political spending by the union not coordinated with a candidate or ballot measure campaign.”

And the rationale behind the campaign donations may not be simple to follow, either.  A funding request may come from the local, or come from the senior members at CTA who are concerned about a particular race.  Sometimes, as in the case of the referendum on gay marriage, a caucus within CTA will push the union to donate to a campaign or referendum that’s not directly related to education. The money is sent to the candidate PAC or passed through the local. There’s no formula. (For larger districts like UTLA, there are local PACs, and also funding from the AFT, to which UTLA formally belongs.)

And the SOS site lacks any detailed accounting of what’s done with each block of cash that’s shifted around, he says.  For example, member communications:  “There’s a whole another section of money spent to communicate with their members about politics that doesn’t show up anywhere,” says Antonucci.  This is a common complaint among those fighting against union campaigns — that some or all of the effort is not captured by disclosure rules, especially around communications, events, and get out the vote efforts.

In theory, this isn’t true in places like LA, where member communication has been written into the local disclosure laws. (Los Angeles requires 24 hour disclosure, including member communications, though the amounts show up underneath the candidate who’s being opposed.)

However, Antonucci isn’t buying it.  “I doubt [the LA County ethics site] can comprehensively cover all relevant member communications from UTLA, CTA, CFT, NEA and AFT and determine what is reportable and what is not,” he says.  “My guess is that the unions are self-policing, and any agency fee-payer will tell you they are not to be trusted to judge what is “political” and what is not.”

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