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Dark money group puts pressure on Pa. lawmakers after Shapiro vows voucher veto

The group running the attack ads, Commonwealth Action, is not required to disclose its donors.

  • Katie Meyer/Spotlight PA
A screenshot from an ad against state House Majority Leader Matt Bradford paid for by the dark money group Commonwealth Action.

 Screenshot via Commonwealth Action YouTube page

A screenshot from an ad against state House Majority Leader Matt Bradford paid for by the dark money group Commonwealth Action.

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media.

As Pennsylvania’s budget impasse drags on, a group that keeps its donors secret is pressuring key lawmakers to support publicly funded private school vouchers.

The group, Commonwealth Action, announced it was launching its ad campaign the day state budget negotiations broke down in Harrisburg.

Set over sepia-toned photos of Black children, the videos intone that state House Majority Leader Matt Bradford wants to keep “thousands of low-income, minority students … suffering in failing schools,” and that Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro is “choosing special interests over kids.”

This round of ads is especially notable because Commonwealth Action is incorporated as a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization.

Good-government advocates call these organizations dark money groups. They are permitted under federal law to accept unlimited sums of money from corporations and individuals, but they do not have to publicize their donors. Aaron McKean, a legal counsel for the nonpartisan watchdog group Campaign Legal Center, said such groups often operate as a “smokescreen.”

“501(c)(4)s have become one of the favorite tools for wealthy special interests to pour a lot of money into our elections, without having to disclose where that money came from,” McKean said.

Commonwealth Action is relatively new.

It filed articles of incorporation with Pennsylvania’s Department of State in mid-April. Its IRS form 990, which federal law requires the group to file and which would show how much money the group has on hand, is not yet available.

The only public detail on the group’s finances that Spotlight PA could locate comes from Google’s political advertising tracker, which shows that Commonwealth Action began funding online ads on July 6, several days after lawmakers dispersed from the Capitol without finalizing a spending plan.

The data show that the organization has spent more than $36,000 since then, both to promote the two videos targeting Bradford and Shapiro, and to place graphics on websites — most of which have the phrase, “Gov. Shapiro, please don’t veto my future,” overlaid on a photo of a child.

Opacity aside, this level of advertising is relatively unusual during budget negotiations, Muhlenberg College political science professor Chris Borick told Spotlight PA.

“A lot of the budgeting messaging from interest groups is done internally,” Borick said. “Most of it’s done through lobbying, contact in the political networks, and not so much in the public opinion game.”

This year’s budget talks dealt a stinging blow to organizations that support private school vouchers, in large part because it briefly appeared that they might score a significant win in the deal.

Shapiro supported private school vouchers on the campaign trail, and his administration affirmed that position in late June.

Republicans have said that as the budget deadline approached, Shapiro negotiated a spending plan with state Senate GOP leaders that included a provision for a new voucher program that would allow children in “low-achieving” public school districts to apply for sums of state money that would go toward tuition or expenses at a private school.

In exchange for that inclusion, Senate GOP leaders said they had acquiesced to higher overall spending than they would have otherwise tolerated.

The state Senate passed the plan, primarily along party lines. But the Democrats who narrowly control the state House refused, with Bradford, the caucus leader, serving as the public face of Democratic opposition to vouchers.

The state House eventually relented and passed the negotiated plan, but only after Shapiro pledged to line-item veto the vouchers.

The budget plan now stands in limbo. After the state House passed it, the state Senate, dismayed with Shapiro’s pledge, refused to reconvene to complete a procedural signature that would send the plan to the governor for final approval.

Public school teachers unions have argued vouchers only make education more inequitable, and say they would weaken public schools months after a state court found that the commonwealth’s funding scheme for schools is already unconstitutionally unequal.

In a statement on the recent string of ads, Arthur Steinberg, president of the union American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania, said he commends Bradford for “standing up for all of Pennsylvania’s school kids, not just a select few.”

He also noted that a line in the ad attacking Bradford — that he is “standing in the schoolhouse door” — appears to be a reference to former Alabama Gov. George Wallace blocking Black students from entering a segregated school in 1963.

“That the Commonwealth Foundation and its ultra-wealthy benefactors care at all about low-income and minority students is laughable,” Steinberg said. “Comparing the protection of accountable, traditional public schools to an infamous racist like George Wallace is both false and deplorable.”

Though it is not clear from Commonwealth Action’s state incorporation paperwork, the group is linked to an established conservative organization in Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth Foundation.

The Commonwealth Foundation declined to share information about the group’s donors. But in a statement, its Senior Vice President of Public Affairs Erik Telford, who said he is also a spokesperson for Commonwealth Action, said the group’s work “is made possible by donors who share our commitment to the urgent need to expand educational opportunities for the most disadvantaged students.”

“Contrast that with the millions spent by government unions to protect their bureaucratic monopoly at the expense of kids trapped in failing schools, where not even a single student performs at grade level for basic skills like reading and math,” he added. “The difference couldn’t be more stark.”

Political spending from public school unions on behalf of their interests, and from advocates for public school alternatives, is substantial in Pennsylvania.

While unions’ funding for political activity comes primarily from member contributions, school choice advocacy in the commonwealth is overwhelmingly funded by a single man, billionaire investor Jeff Yass.

Yass, who routes money to candidates who support school choice in both parties using a network of political action committees, didn’t respond to a request for comment via a spokesperson asking whether he is involved.

But in the days since the budget impasse began, Yass has been active. He wrote or co-wrote editorials in the Wall Street Journal and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and both echo key points in Commonwealth Action’s ads.

Namely: Shapiro must not veto vouchers. And if he does, he will “betray” students.

Lawmakers are not scheduled to return to Harrisburg until September.

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