by James A. Bacon
When writing about the passing of Mike Thompson, founder of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy (TJI) (see previous post), I chanced to look at TJI’s 990 forms. It had been my impression that Mike ran the small-government think tank on a shoestring, and the IRS filing confirmed it. The vast majority of the money Mike raised went directly into programs.
Virginia has another think tank, the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis (CI), that occupies the same niche as TJI, publishing research reports on Virginia-specific issues. CI, a center-left group, does solid, credible work. But it also frames issues on education, immigration, health care and the budget the same way you would expect a center-left group to do.
Having written extensively about the role of dark money in Virginia — by “dark” money, I mean money that is not subject to public reporting requirements — I was curious to see how CI’s funding compared to TJI’s. No surprise: Year-in, year-out CI has generated significantly more revenue than TJI — by a margin of four- or five-to-one in recent years, as can be seen in the table above. That’s just one more example, as if another were needed, of how the political system is rigged in favor of the left.
I raise the point not to be critical of CI, which is playing by the rules of the game. My purpose is to demonstrate that left-leaning dark money exceeds right-leaning dark money in the ceaseless effort to shape the public-policy battlefield. While both think tanks report how much revenue they generate, they don’t say where the money comes from. In both cases, nearly all their revenue came from grants and donations. But the public doesn’t know who’s handing out the grants and giving the donations.
Liberals and progressives have focused on the corrupting influence of Big Money in Virginia political campaigns — especially that of big corporations like Dominion Energy and tobacco giant Altria. They focus on campaign contributions because that’s an area where conservative candidates for General Assembly and statewide office are competitive in raising money.
But dark money is a different matter entirely. In the modern political system, scores of nonprofit organizations work to influence public perceptions on important issues, thus influencing election outcomes indirectly. This is a realm, I contend, where liberals and progressives raise far more money than conservatives and libertarians. Naturally, it’s an area that liberals and progressives show zero interest in shedding light upon.
As defenders of constitutional rights, conservatives and libertarians are far more reluctant than liberals and progressives to call for more government restrictions on what people can do with their money. Personally, I think people — yes, even liberals and progressives — should be free to contribute however much money they wish to whichever political candidate, think tank, or nonprofit cause they wish to. But I fervently believe in transparency. If you want to influence elections and public policy either directly (lobbying, contributing to candidates) or indirectly (doing research, “educating” the public, etc.) you need to report where your money is coming from.
Also, I have big problems with providing tax exemption to donations to “nonpartisan” nonprofits that engage in indirectly influencing election outcomes. People who donate to political campaigns cannot write off their contributions. Why should people who cycle their money through the back door?
Conservatives and libertarians need to make transparency and tax fairness their causes. We have everything to gain by showing how the game is rigged today and who is rigging it. If liberals and progressives want to maintain secrecy, let them own the cause of dark money.There are currently no comments highlighted.