Wolf’s Multi-Million Dollar Conflict of Interest

Note: This commentary was published in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the York Daily Record among other newspapers.

Governor-elect Tom Wolf has come out of the gate leading a charge for ethics reform in government, but his own glaring conflict of interest leaves a cloud over his high-minded efforts.

Wolf has asked his transition team to sign an ethics pledge in an attempt to prevent conflicts of interest within his administration. He’s also publicly expressed his support for a comprehensive gift ban, indicating he would prohibit executive branch officials from accepting gifts from lobbyists—even something as small as a cup of coffee.

But if accepting a small gift creates a conflict of interest, the gov.-elect will soon be facing an enormous ethical dilemma: negotiating new state contracts with government unions who were among his largest campaign donors this past election.

Pennsylvania government unions contributed more than $3.4 million directly to Wolf’s campaign in 2014—that’s a lot of cups of coffee.

Government unions spent millions more to support Wolf via “Super PACs,” which are partially funded by union dues. It’s not unreasonable to think that union leaders will expect a return on their large investment.

Worse, Wolf will be negotiating whether the state will continue to collect government unions’ political money with those same union leaders. That’s right, Wolf can sign contracts permitting the state—at taxpayer expense—to collect union campaign contributions sent directly to union leadership, who can then funnel those funds right back to the Wolf campaign.

That isn’t to say Wolf has to agree to such terms, or that there is necessarily any quid pro quo involved. But the situation certainly creates a conflict of interest for Wolf—the very type of conflict he is trying to avoid with his gift ban and ethics pledge. There is the potential for, or at least the perception of, corruption.

If Wolf is serious about ending conflicts of interest in government, he can negotiate the end of state collection of political money.

In a perfect world, the gov.-elect, or any public official, would not be faced with this type of decision. But because government unions are conferred this exclusive privilege, reform is necessary to end conflicts of interest, promote good government, and restore fairness in politics.

Public-sector unions’ access to public resources for the purpose of advancing their political agenda is a perk no other private organizations enjoy—the antithesis of fairness. As a result, the rights of public employees and taxpayers are routinely violated.

But legislation is on the horizon that would correct this injustice.

“Mary’s Law,” more commonly known as paycheck protection, would prohibit the taxpayer-funded collection of political money. Mary’s Law is named after an educator and Pennsylvania State Education Association member from Williamsport who saw her union use not only her dues, but her own name to endorse a candidate—Gov.-elect Wolf—she didn’t support.

Dozens of other teachers, like Mike Edwards of Ephrata School District in Lancaster County, have spoken up about this abuse of political power.

Edwards says, “Unions have too much power and control of the individual because they take money against an individual teacher’s will and use the money how they wish, without their knowledge. With paycheck protection, unions will collect dues on their own, and individuals won’t be forced to support union politics they don’t agree with or have a voice in.”

Public employees aren’t the only group wronged by the present system. Thanks to this exclusive government-granted privilege, taxpayers are forced to subsidize the political speech of government unions, violating their right to freedom of association.

Why should taxpayers be required to subsidize political candidates and causes at odds with their personal beliefs? They shouldn’t. No one should be force to subsidize politicians or political causes they disagree with.

The vast majority of voters support ending the taxpayer collection of union political money, including a majority of union members. Mary’s Law is not ideological.

Allowing public officials to bargain with their political contributors over the collection of campaign contributions is a recipe for disaster.

As a self-avowed champion of worthwhile ethics reform measures, Gov.-elect Wolf must be consistent. He has the opportunity to lead by example and end conflicts of interest in government by making Mary’s Law a top priority.

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Nathan A. Benefield is vice president of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.