OPED: Billionaire-funded group goes after taxpayers, working families

Eric Rosso
PA Spotlight

Last January, the York Dispatch published PA Spotlight’s 2017 wish list. We outlined our hopes regarding the Commonwealth Foundation, the Keystone State’s local Koch Brothers-funded outfit. Our wish was simple; to expose this right-wing organization for what it truly is. This past year, we worked to make more Pennsylvanians aware of the Commonwealth Foundation’s efforts to make our state less friendly to workers, its fight to keep wages low, and its influence in twisting the debate via the media.

More:OPED: A Pennsylvania Spotlight wish list

As we kick-off 2018, its worth taking stock of last year’s list. And to remind folks of the truth about the Commonwealth Foundation. In actuality, it’s the Pennsylvania outpost of the State Policy Network — a national network of billionaire-funded front groups that mostly go after labor unions and working families. They’ve been described as “less free actors than a coordinated collection of corporate front groups.” In fact, they didn’t have a very good year either. The Guardian was able to bring to light fundraising documents that showed their true intention as a right-wing alliance aimed at “defunding and defanging” labor unions.

Thankfully for working families, they failed on many fronts last year. Let’s start at the end of 2017 when the Commonwealth Foundation really, really wanted to shepherd through a piece of anti-union legislation. In what was described as a “stunning” defeat, the Commonwealth Foundation’s pet project faced bipartisan rejection in December. It probably didn’t help that — in the lead up to the legislation — PA Spotlight exposed the Commonwealth Foundation and their extremist allies using fake social media accounts and twitter bots to send their petition to legislators on the vote.

This wasn’t the only time the Commonwealth Foundation ended up with egg on its face last year. In August, the group was caught enjoying what looked to be quite the expensive gondola dinner at the annual State Policy Network retreat in San Antonio, TX. Quite the out-of-touch optics for an organization that advocates against raising the minimum wage and consistently denigrates teachers and homecare workers.

In 2017, PA Spotlight was also able to expose connections to the Commonwealth Foundation found in leaked documents from the Bradley Foundation, a right-wing foundation based in Wisconsin known for doling out money to anti-LGBT causes, climate science deniers, and groups with ties to white nationalists. The Commonwealth Foundation was soliciting nearly half a million dollars from them to go after labor unions in conjunction with two national right-wing organizations. The Bradley Foundation described their efforts in Pennsylvania as “unsophisticated” in their notes.

These documents show how they were going to “better brand” freedom in Pennsylvania and recruit anti-union candidates. These are questionable activities for a non-profit organization that receives federal and state tax benefits. It just so happens these documents are from the same year the Commonwealth Foundation was audited by the IRS, likely over potential violations of their non-profit status.

Since then, the Commonwealth Foundation had two additional front groups connected to them propped up in Pennsylvania. The Fairness Center and the Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs — headed by their former leader and current board member Matthew Brouillette. These groups did not escape the failures of the Commonwealth Foundation either. In their efforts to be all things anti-workers, the Fairness Center took up many frivolous lawsuits this year aimed at teachers, home care workers, and their political enemies. In November, they were handed a defeat in the courts losing on the merits of their arguments with regard to a case going after teachers.

It’s ironic that despite persistent failures of the Koch brothers-funded Commonwealth Foundation, they continue to champion causes for the well-connected and greedy. Their commitment to a “free market” where the market decides who wins and losses, as they claim to have, must not extend to their own funding. It’s worth noting that in order to escape accountability from funding them, the Commonwealth Foundation hides their donors. As does the Fairness Center nor Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs.

As we look to 2018, PA Spotlight promises to continue shining a light on the Commonwealth Foundation. One of their core missions this next year will be to sell the recently passed tax giveaways for corporations and the wealthy signed into law by President Donald Trump and championed by the Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell led Republicans. We’ve already seen op-eds in Pennsylvania trying to spin this historically unpopular law from the current Commonwealth Foundation CEO, and fittingly so. Media outlets have already noted their failure in convincing voters these tax handouts are good for the working class.

— Eric Rosso is Executive Director of Pennsylvania Spotlight, a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization dedicated to educating the public on issues that enhance the well-being of middle-class families and workers here in Pennsylvania.