The Star-Ledger

Don't Be Fooled. The Woman Dragged From The Norcross Hearing Speaks For The NJEA | Opinion

The Star-Ledger — November 26, 2019

By Mike Lilley
Star-Ledger Guest Columnist

Recent news headlines have been ablaze with stories about the forced removal of Working Families Alliance State Director Sue Altman from a state Senate hearing on New Jersey's corporate tax-incentive program.

Altman was quickly supported by a familiar group of progressive advocacy groups such as New Jersey Citizen Action, New Jersey Policy Perspective and Blue Wave NJ. Altman and her allies claim to speak for the "people of New Jersey" against the "shady political machine" run by George Norcross, whose corporate projects in Camden were major participants in the tax-incentive program.

Speaking for the people of New Jersey sounds very high-minded, but is that really whom Altman and Working Families are speaking for? Because Working Families is a "dark money" group that refuses to disclose a full list of its donors, it takes some work to find out who provides the money behind the organization.

We do know that Working Families is funded by the public sector unions like the New Jersey Education Association, the Communications Workers of America and the Service Employees International Union. We do know that the NJEA has given Working Families at least $845,000.

We do know that the NJEA specifically mentions Working Families in its strategic planning for its political campaigns to raise taxes, increase state education aid and boost funding for its members' compensation and benefits. And thanks to some digging by Politico, we do know that the NJEA-controlled, Murphy-supporting dark money group New Direction New Jersey gave Working Families an additional $100,000. So that's at least $945,000 attributable to the NJEA.

We also know that Citizen Action, Policy Perspective and Blue Wave have received funding from the NJEA, and that they have actively collaborated with Working Families in political actions like Monday's protest. These groups form a small part of the vast, interconnected network of allies that the NJEA supports and mobilizes to bolster its political agenda, a network that will be detailed in a December Sunlight Policy Center report.

It is a fact that the NJEA has called for an end to the corporate tax-incentive program so that the foregone tax revenues can be spent on the NJEA's priorities. So it is little surprise that NJEA-funded Working Families has taken the lead in protesting against the tax-incentive program, or that Citizen Action, Policy Perspective and Blue Wave have rallied in support of Altman. Just as Working Families provides foot soldiers for the NJEA's favored candidates, so does Working Families provide foot soldiers to protest corporate incentives.

If Altman and her allies were truly concerned about "shady political machines," they would turn their focus on their NJEA patrons. It is beyond dispute that the NJEA is one of New Jersey's largest and most powerful political machines. Dark money is epitome of "shady," and the NJEA is the king of New Jersey dark money. It was the primary funding source ($4.5 million) of New Direction, which refused to disclose its donors until Sunlight Policy Center, Politico and the Bergen Record exposed the NJEA's secret funding. Before New Direction, the NJEA was the sole funder ($2.95 million) of One New Jersey, the dark money group active in the 2013 gubernatorial campaign. That's a total of $7.45 million in dark money. Where's the outrage, Ms. Altman?

So when it comes to the tax-incentive program, Altman and Working Families are not speaking for the people of New Jersey, they are speaking for the NJEA. And Altman is not truly concerned about shady political machines because she speaks on behalf of one.

The public should not be fooled. Altman and the Working Families protesters booing in the back of the hearing room were not from grassroots organizations representing the people of New Jersey, they are paid political activists doing the bidding of New Jersey's most powerful special interest, the NJEA.

Mike Lilley is the founder and president of the Sunlight Policy Center of New Jersey, a nonprofit organization focused on showcasing greater transparency and sound policy solutions.

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