National News
October 18, 2010

How much does the NEA spend on politics?

How Much Does NEA Spend on Politics? I have been asked this question, in some form, at least once a week for the past 13 years. I'm afraid my answer invariably fails to satisfy. I respond:

What do you mean by "NEA" and what do you mean by "politics?"

Therein lies the main difficulty with placing an indisputable figure on the cash amount. One man's "politics" is another man's "member communication." Some think "political spending" is limited to donations to candidates. Others think it's every dollar not directly related to bargaining contracts for local teachers.

I'll do my best to work you through it - from the broadest interpretation to the narrowest and from national to local - with examples from the current election cycle. Fair warning, though: The results are nuanced and overlapping.

The first thing we have to do is to divide NEA into its three components - national, state and local. Though money is extracted from members' paychecks in one lump sum, its division and destination depend on federal and state laws. NEA's national headquarters expects to bring in $358 million in 2010-11.

Because unions cannot charge non-members for political spending, each year NEA must compute what portion of its spending is related to collective bargaining and services, and what portion is not. This percentage varies year-to-year, but by NEA's own computation the non-chargeable portion is around 40 percent. So the broadest interpretation of NEA's "political" spending would be $143 million annually.

State affiliates must perform a similar computation. Their non-chargeable percentage varies from state to state, but here in California it has traditionally been about 30 percent. The California Teachers Association's budget is around $201 million, so its "political" spending would be about $60 million. If you were to perform similar calculations on all of NEA's state affiliates, your grand total would run about $275 million.

NEA has more than 10,000 local affiliates, but relatively few spend money on politics. The ones that do tend to be large, like those in Los Angeles and San Diego. I couldn't even estimate what a grand total would be, but I feel confident that all political spending, at all levels, under the broadest interpretation, would amount to something under $450 million annually.

But how that money is categorized is a different story entirely, because the lion's share of it never ends up in the war chests of either political candidates or campaigns. Most of it is used to deliver a political message to members, and is therefore not subject to any campaign finance restrictions. So the question of whether a particular expense is political depends not only on the substance of the message, but to whom it is being disseminated. If NEA sends a mailer to a member calling for the election of Candidate X, or the passage of Measure Y, it is probably not a campaign expenditure. But if NEA sends the same mailer to me, it is.

What NEA spends to influence politicians and the public is reported in political finance public records. What it spends to influence its own members shows up only in its comprehensive financial reporting, gathered by the IRS and the Department of Labor. So when NEA says it plans to spend $40 million on the 2010 election, it isn't entirely clear whether the union includes member communication in that total. Unfortunately, even when we disregard members the political spending picture can still be very cloudy.

First, there are lobbying expenditures. In the 2009-10 election cycle, NEA has so far spent about $4.4 million on lobbying. Naturally, NEA lobbies Congress and the executive branch. State affiliates lobby governors and state legislatures and report those expenditures individually. You can check each state's top lobbyists and see where each NEA affiliate ranks, and then total it up. Let me know what you end up with.

Next are PAC contributions. These cause the most confusion because the union is fond of telling objecting members, "We don't spend dues money on political candidates." This is true. It is against the law to do so. But this is the narrowest interpretation of political spending - direct contributions to candidates. NEA must collect voluntary contributions for its PAC, and only from members. Most of the fundraising comes during annual events and assemblies, such as the NEA convention each July. It might surprise you to know that NEA's $1.2 million in PAC spending in the 2010 cycle doesn't rank in the top 20 Democratic PAC contributors (AFT is sixth).

So we move on to those political expenditures for which you can use dues money: independent expenditures, issue campaigns and ballot initiatives. According to the Federal Election Commission, NEA had more than $3.4 million in independent expenditures for the period from Sept. 1 to Oct. 14. But that's far from all. As EIA readers well know, NEA collects $10 annually from each member for its Ballot Measures/Legislative Crises Fund. Money that isn't disbursed carries over to the following year, often leaving NEA with $20 million to spend on national or state campaigns.

The union no longer issues a memo detailing those expenditures, but EIA has reported on the $3 million granted to Oklahoma and $500,000 to Washington. EIA has also learned that NEA will end up contributing almost $4.3 million to California's ballot initiative campaigns. All these national contributions are in addition to whatever the  state affiliate raises and spends on its own. It can get tricky keeping track of these, since an NEA donation could go directly to an initiative campaign, or it could go to the state affiliate, which then gives it to the initiative campaign. There is both a danger of missing a significant donation, or double-counting a single one.

The National Institute on Money in State Politics does yeoman work trying to keep it all straight, but it is limited by the relative transparency of each state's laws. Nonetheless, it reports $28.8 million in political spending from NEA and its state affiliates during the 2009-10 election cycle (so far). Almost $12.8 million of that is being spent in California. And as we zoom in on California, we can see just how complex this all can get.

Let's begin with the eight initiatives set for the November ballot. The state's Fair Political Practices Commission reported on the large contributors in each campaign. The California Teachers Association contributed more than $100,000 to five of them (for what each measure would do, check this page):

- $304,240 to No on 22
- $200,000 to No on 23
- $6,449,894 to Yes on 24
- $1,204,240 to Yes on 25
- $254,240 to No on 26

But CTA's political spending extends far beyond these initiatives. The union has a candidate PAC, an issues PAC, and two independent expenditure committees. Let's take them in turn.

The candidate PAC is especially tricky, because CTA, like NEA, has to collect voluntary contributions for it. Except the definition of voluntary is slightly different in California from what it is at the federal level. When one becomes a CTA member, one must check a box refusing to donate to the PAC. Leave it blank, and you'll be contributing $26.30 a year to the PAC for as long as you remain a member.

This year, the CTA candidate PAC sent relatively small amounts to candidates and Democratic Party committees, but directed $1.5 million to one independent expenditure committee and $5 million to the other. The first committee sent all of its funding to the state superintendent of public instruction campaign of Tom Torlakson. The second committee has so far spent $1.5 million on Torlakson, $1 million on Jerry Brown for governor, and $250,000 to the Alliance for a Better California, a coalition of public employee unions that has given the bulk of its money to Jerry Brown and the Yes on 24 and 25 campaigns.

This brings us, at last, to the issues PAC, which in addition to the ballot initiative spending noted above, also gave $2 million to the California Democratic Party.

As you can see, there isn't a sound bite reply to the headline question, "How Much Does NEA Spend on Politics?" But you wouldn't be far wrong if you simply answered, "As much as it wants to."

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