By John Finnerty
Tracking the way political spending works its way into the political discourse in Harrisburg is difficult because some of the most prominent advocacy organizations operating in the capital do not have to disclose where they get their money.
That means both the Keystone Research Center and The Commonwealth Foundation get to decide how much information they give the public about who is paying for their research.
Both organizations are registered as 501(c)(3) groups, the same tax category used by most charities. Yet, both organizations routinely play prominent roles in the public debate over policy issues in the state capital.
The Commonwealth Foundation has been the leading proponent of liquor privatization, one of the key policy priorities announced by Gov. Tom Corbett earlier this year. The group has also aggressively opposed the expansion of Medicaid made possible under the Affordable Care Act. Corbett announced in September that rather that expand Medicaid, he would like to use the Affordable Care Act’s insurance exchanges to provide insurance to the working poor.
The Keystone Research Center, on the other hand, has produced studies and reports supporting Medicaid expansion and opposing liquor privatization.
Stephen Herzenberg, executive director at the Keystone Research Center, said that union support accounts for about 15 percent of the center’s $1.2 million a year in revenue.
Herzenberg said that in some cases, unions have paid for specific research projects in addition to just donating generally to the center.
Herzenberg said he doesn’t believe the donations undermine the credibility of the research.
“Everybody brings a perspective to their research,” Herzenberg said. “Our values don’t determine what answers are revealed by our research.”
The Commonwealth Foundation has publicly criticized the public sector union’s donations to the research center.
Recently, Matthew Brouillette, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, described the Keystone Research Center as “union front group” in a tweet about a report from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center that raised concerns about property tax reform legislation. The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center is an arm of the Keystone Research Center.
Officials at the Commonwealth Foundation said they have able to track union donations to the research center by studying federal documents filed by the unions. The Commonwealth Foundation, though, does not disclose who gives it money, said Nathan Benefield, director of policy analysis for the foundation.
Liberal groups have identified some of the sources of the Commonwealth Foundation’s funding by monitoring spending by influential small-government, anti-union political action committees. The Bridge Project found that among the groups that given to the Commonwealth Foundation are: The Sarah Scaife Foundation, named after the mother of Richard Scaife, owner of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review; and the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation, overseen by the Koch Brothers, owners of Koch Industries, the second largest private company in the country.
The Commonwealth Foundation reported $1.95 million in revenue in its last IRS filing.
“Our issue with Keystone in this case isn’t whether they get funding from liberal foundations,” Benefield said. “What is an issue for us is that union members can be forced to support the Keystone Research Center, from dues taken out of their paycheck and collected by government entities. In contrast, 100 percent of our contributions are voluntary.”
Finnerty writes for CNHI’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune, from Harrisburg.