The PennFuture Scandal: We’re Not Mudslinging

Jan Murphy of the Patriot-News did a fine job in her Sunday article, giving an evenhanded account of our report on PennFuture’s lobbying, but the newspaper’s opinion editors either didn’t read the story or are anesthetized by their own bias (or by Jan Jarrett). Their editorial reduces the issues we raised down to meaningless “mudslinging” and “a childish exchange of blows.”

Part of the responsibility of think tanks, which are inherently in the business of competing to get attention (and victory) for their ideas and policy prescriptions, is to make sure the truth is clear and reaches the widest audience possible. That often means clearing up misconceptions about their own views, but also identifying and revealing myths that gain traction in the media (or otherwise) about their opponents. Such was the case with our PennFuture report, which was hardly “mudslinging,” unless you want to limit your understanding to Jarrett’s simplistic accusation that we “smeared” her organization.

Among the points we wanted to make, none of which anyone at PennFuture or elsewhere have refuted:

  1. PennFuture, joining forces with other liberal groups like Common Cause, has relentlessly attacked the natural gas/fossil fuel industry for its lobbying and campaign expenditures as though the environment and Left were powerless to stop them. In addition they have accused the Commonwealth Foundation of “go[ing] to any lengths in service to its ideology and its funders.” Our report on PennFuture illustrated they have ample firepower themselves, thanks to mega-millionaire donor foundations like The Heinz Endowments and the William Penn Foundation, as well as streams of revenues from alternative energy companies. This is the height of hypocrisy, and something that never would have seen the light of day if we depended on Pennsylvania’s mainstream media.
  2. Alternative energy companies, which donated more than $900,000 to PennFuture over a five-year period, escape state lobbying disclosure laws because all they have to do is pay PennFuture to carry their water for them as they advocate for (or against) specific legislation. The Patriot-News editors downplay this as a matter of PennFuture needing to eliminate bill numbers from their advocacy work, while ignoring the fact that private companies partially owned by PennFuture received grants and subsidies after passage of the laws they lobbied for, especially the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard.
  3. PennFuture lied to the IRS by reporting ZERO dollars for indirect lobbying for four years straight, when clearly they had a robust grassroots activism program. In their financial reports their accountant said it had thoroughly reviewed their operations and concluded their reports were accurate. So PennFuture or their CPA (or both) engaged in either incompetent or illegal (or both) accounting practices. IRS 990 tax returns clearly delineate their line items between direct and indirect lobbying, so it’s difficult to believe this is an innocent mistake — especially when PennFuture put a ZERO on that line item for four years straight.
  4. Finally, the Patriot-News editorial board alleges we are a vocal opponent of any severance tax on natural gas drilling in the state,” and wonders whether “we are following the wishes of some of (our) big donors.” We have not taken such a position at all, but rather we provided research on severance taxes on other states and the economic impact of gas drilling, and suggested that a fair tax would be tied to environmental cost — but those costs are already being covered. As for our donors, they have every right to privacy to protect themselves from harassment as PennFuture’s donors have. If businesses and foundations want to fund think tanks that advance the causes that improve their standing, they have that right also. But they must do so within the laws that guide limitations and disclosure.

PennFuture isn’t wearing mud we’ve slung at them; they’re wearing shoes that fit, and if there’s mud then they tracked it in themselves.