Back in June of this year, Governor Rick Snyder and the Republican legislature in Michigan were fiercely debating ways to limit government contributions for public pensions and health care costs. One of the strategies was to switch the public contribution from a fixed percentage of premiums to a fixed dollar amount, and that initiative ultimately passed in September.
For 2012, school districts could not spend more than a fixed amount for health insurance, or else they would have to opt for an 80/20 percent cost-sharing plan where teachers paid 20 percent with the district picking up the 80 percent. This law was passed in advance of contracts being negotiated for the 2012 year, so that they would have to include it as part of the negotiation. In other words, the legislators tied unions' bargaining ability in a knot.
This legislation was just part of a multi-pronged attack on unions and public education in general. Other bills have been passed along party lines changing tenure rules and criteria for firing teachers, allowing outsourcing of teachers in charter schools, changing union dues rules, attacking collective bargaining, lifting limitations on state payments to cyber schools, and even lifting anti-bullying rules.
It's not an accident that this is happening in Michigan. Michigan, after all, is the home of Betsy and Dick DeVos, ardent opponents of all public schools. They aren't afraid to throw millions at that goal, either. One of her very favorite charities, along with her pals the Kochs, is the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Ostensibly a think tank, Mackinac is a non-profit organization which exists to write, lobby and serve as advocate for right wing dream legislation.
Emails published on Monday by the Michigan Education Association clearly show that Mackinac was coordinating with Republican state legislators in Michigan to not only limit teachers' collective bargaining rights, but they were also deeply involved in the policy surrounding health care costs. In one email from Jack McHugh, Mackinac senior legislative analyst and editor of MichiganVotes.org to state Representative (and chair of the House Education Committee) Tom McMillin with copies to several other Mackinac policy wonks, McHugh says this:
I personal think 20 percent is OK, because it changes the employee incentives (and we do believe in incentives!)
But a hard cap is OK too.
Do we care who runs the operation? Maybe, for this reason: Our goal is outlaw government collective bargaining in Michigan, which in practical terms means no more MEA.
I'm reminded of our calls to eliminate ISDs [Internal Service Departments] (and Ruth's work to expose them): The legislature keeps giving them more things to do, making it ever more difficult to abolish them.
Mackinac's stated purpose and programs on its 990 filing are as follows:
Nowhere in that description do I see anything suggesting that research and analysis also includes one-on-one advocacy, determination of legislative goals, and efforts to attain those goals, nor do I see any stated goals that include "eliminating" state agencies or teachers' unions. Do you?
Here's what the MEA said about this exchange:
“The Mackinac Center likes to pretend it’s a non-partisan think tank, but the public deserves to know who they really are and what they really think,” said MEA President Steven Cook. “For years, we’ve been saying that their real agenda is the elimination of collective bargaining rights and the destruction of unions – and now they’ve said it, in black and white.”
The Mackinac Center is a 501(c)3 non-profit that, according to their most recent filings with the IRS, does not engage in lobbying activities. These emails certainly call that assertion into question – something the Center’s deep-pocketed backers should take into account.
“Based only on the limited reporting requirements the Mackinac Center has to follow, we know that foundations representing conservative individuals and corporate special interests have given millions to the Mackinac Center to push policy positions and develop pseudo-science ‘research’ to back up their beliefs,” Cook said. “Politicians who have that faux-research foisted upon them should know what the Center’s real agenda is – and whose interests they’re representing.”
For their part, Mackinac is unapologetic and direct. They responded with this on Tuesday:
The idea that this is “exposing” anything hidden is bizarre; the Center has long questioned collective bargaining in government, and it haspublicly recommended the repeal of collective bargaining. Significantly, however, the MEA is mounting the attack at the very time when policymakers are finally beginning to address the worst excesses ofcollective bargaining for government employees. In short, the union is hoping to change the subject.
Actually, the one trying to change the subject here is Mackinac, because the issue is not their stated policy opposition to public employees and collective bargaining. The issue is their active participation in lobbying for and shaping that policy into legislation, which runs directly counter to their stated purpose and the role of non-profit organizations. That is what they haven't addressed and that is what should be examined.
Mackinac's meddling is consistent with what we've seen from ALEC and other right-wing "think tanks." What they have done is manage to turn lobbying into a tax-deductible item on the returns of the wealthy people protecting their own interests. It's really time for the IRS to take a hard look at whether these non-profits are serving their stated purpose or overstepping the boundaries.
The full series of emails are below.
Also see Progress Michigan for more information on Mackinac and Rep. Tom McMillan