Outside Influence on 42 | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Outside Influence on 42

Initiative 42 set off statewide debate about amending the constitutional provision requiring the Mississippi Legislature to fund and provide for a system of public schools. Pro-42 advocates consolidated in Better Jobs, Better Schools, and the anti-42 advocates formed KidsFirst and Improve Mississippi, which were all funded, at least in part, through outside organizations and dollars.

These campaign donations are called "dark money" mainly because voters often are not privy to where the funding for the campaigns are coming from, the exact amounts individuals or organizations give to middle groups, or the political agendas or objectives of those organizations providing the funding.

The Brennan Center for Justice tracks and researches campaign finance and spending in elections. Chisun Lee, senior counsel at the center, said outside money entering state and even local elections has been a continuous trend since 2010.

The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case in 2010 opened the doors for corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of their money on independent election communications. Previously, they had been limited in the amounts they could contribute. The law technically states that their spending has to be independent, meaning they cannot coordinate with candidates, although due to outdated state disclosure laws, Lee said, this makes the donors less accountable.

Some states have recognized how the Citizens United decision made their disclosure laws outdated and have acted to change it. Lee said the State of Montana worked out a bipartisan agreement to make campaign donors more accountable, passing a "transparency in political spending" package into state law.

With Mississippi's 42 initiative, "dark money" (what Lee said could also be called "secretive" donors) tainted both sides of the Initiative 42 campaign, giving the other side political fodder and, arguably, muting the ability of either to take the high road on funding.

On the pro-42 side, the New Venture Fund and the Southern Education Foundation gave millions of dollars to the Better Schools, Better Jobs campaign.

The Southern Education Foundation is an education and advocacy organization that works to promote early learning, advance public education and improve college access in the South. They have also been involved in school-discipline initiatives in Alabama. The New Venture Fund claims to be a nonpartisan charity that supports interest projects, by directing donor funds to said projects. They were also involved with the launch of the Literacy Design Collaborative that helped school districts and states implement Common Core standards.

The Associated Press found that both charities gave $2.6 million to Better Schools, Better Jobs, but over half that donation came from three main donors: the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, former Secretary of State Dick Molpus and former Netscape and FedEx executive Jim Barksdale—all avowed supporters of pubic education in Mississippi who have invested large amounts of money in education efforts in the state over the years.

The Associated Press reviewed records showing that at least $1.6 million in donations can be pinpointed to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Molpus. Barksdale's contribution amount is unknown. Kellogg announced its donations to both charities on its website: $500,000 to the Southern Education Foundation and $900,000 to the New Venture Fund.

On the anti-42 side, Americans for Prosperity, started by the controversial Koch brothers, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to KidsFirst Mississippi, one of the anti-42 campaigns.

The Southern Education Foundation and Americans for Prosperity are both nonprofit organizations—and the Citizens United decision applies to them as well, so they are unlimited in the amounts they can give to candidates' campaign communications.

"Nonprofits are coming out as the largest dark-money organizations (in our research)," Lee said.

Political action committees and political initiative committees are only required to submit monthly reports to the secretary of state's office, so the October reports (which should reveal just how much was spent on these campaigns) are not due until Nov. 10, a week after the election. Watch jfp.ms/documents to read copies of those reports.

Read more about Initiative 42, and the funding on both sides, at jfp.ms/maep.

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