The goal was to find how members of the New Jersey Education Association, an underwriter of NJTV News, felt after the state’s biggest teacher’s union spent millions of dollars on a candidate who lost the election. But, what was discovered was that many members were under the impression that the money spent on the race was only from voluntary donations.
“Those millions of dollars are voluntary donations by members, called PAC donations. So, it’s not like it’s money that comes out of dues dollars. So I’m perfectly fine,” said NJEA member Robert Scardino.
“Too many people just don’t understand the PAC system. All the money that went to support our candidates along the way, we were very foolish not to publicize the fact that it was PAC money,” said NJEA member Barbara Toczko. “It differs because it’s not dues money. … Dues goes for everything else but it doesn’t go for political,”
According to the Election Law Enforcement Commission, documents show the NJEA has been the biggest political spender in the state. Between 1999 and 2016, it spent more than $78 million through lobbying, direct campaign contributions and independent spending. The NJEA PAC, which members are referring to, directly contributes to candidates through voluntary donations.
But four years ago, the union also founded a Super PAC called Garden State Forward. That nonprofit organization can only spend money indirectly on political campaigns. Those funds are known as independent expenditures.
According to its most recent filing with ELEC, Garden State Forward spent about $5.7 million on the recent general election. Based on data filed with ELEC, that’s nearly seven times more than it spent through voluntary donations to its PAC.
The NJEA doesn’t break out the amount of super PAC money it spends on each race, but confirmed it spent the largest amount on the 3rd District race to unseat Senate President Steve Sweeney. ELEC estimates that amount was $4.5 million.
At the NJEA convention, when asked about where that money came from, NJEA President Marie Blistan said it was in part from membership dues.
“We absolutely use some of our money to promote those causes, because as you know in public education, everything is either legislative, it’s regulated or it’s by statute.” said Blistan. “So our involvement in politics, it’s not by choice, it is absolutely a necessity.”
Blistan confirmed only some of the $4.5 million came from membership dues, adding, “We exist from member’s dues, and again for the purpose of advocating on behalf of them, wherever that has to be.”
Although no one from the NJEA was available to speak on camera, NJEA Communications Director Steve Baker confirmed by email that all of the roughly $5.7 million did come from membership dues, stating that “all independent expenditures are from dues.”
So why are some members unaware that part of their membership dues are helping to foot the bill? That email and several follow-up calls to the NJEA were left unanswered.