The war is on against public-education funding with large political advocacy groups and GOP donors' dollars pouring into anti-Initiative 42 Political Initiative Committees (PICs). The KidsFirst and Improve Mississippi committees alone have raised more than $300,000 to defeat the citizens' initiative to force state lawmakers to follow the law and fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.
Improve Mississippi has launched the most visible anti-Initiative 42 campaign, sponsoring a television ad and a new website, 42truth.com. After document filings on Oct. 9, the source of the money is more clear. The PIC reports donations of just over $200,000 in 2015, and claims to have spent almost none of it, although TV ads bearing the group's name started in early October.
The PIC's $25,000 donors include PACs run by the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, Mississippi Bankers Association, Mississippi Poultry Association, Mississippi Homebuilders Association and Mississippi Realtors Association; smaller donors include the PACs for the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, Independent Insurance Agents of Mississippi and the Mississippi Malt Beverage Association.
The Improve Mississippi political initiative committee originally surfaced in leaked emails from Jones County Junior College President Jesse Smith, who urged other presidents to donate to the PIC in September Donors are mainly state Republicans and industry groups, including the campaigns of Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Reeves, House Appropriations Chairman Herb Frierson and House Speaker Philip Gunn.
As of Oct. 9, each campaign had donated $10,000 to Improve Mississippi. Empower MS PAC, the political arm of the "school choice" foundation by the same name, contributed $10,000 to Improve Mississippi. The Empower PAC and the American Federation for Children funded campaigns in the DeSoto County primary election in August, ousting four Republicans who did not support "school choice" legislation, which critics say is a privatization agenda. The Empower PAC had $127,000 on hand as of Oct. 9.
Staying in the Shadows
Van White is Improve Mississippi's treasurer, but did not respond to messages. White, a Moss Point native who graduated from Ole Miss in 1986, became president of the Business and Industry Political Education Committee, or BIPEC, in 2008, the Mississippi Business Journal reported.
BIPEC, which scores legislators on conservative business ideals, is not set up as a political action committee, and MBJ reported that it does not lobby or campaign, although its representatives meet with legislators to ascertain and evaluate their positions on issues that concern its members, as well as monitors the election of members of the Mississippi Supreme Court and other state judges.
White's group does have a PAC arm, however. "The Improve Mississippi Political Action Committee, or IMPAC, is a political campaign sister of BIPEC and often uses these grades and information to identify and target and assist business-friendly candidates," former Mississippi Republican Party Political Director Brian Perry wrote in a column in 2013. "But BIPEC itself does not get involved in campaigns directly."
The Improve Mississippi PAC reported $20,000 on hand and no disbursements as of Oct. 9. The PAC files a separate campaign-finance report from the PIC.
What's not clear from Improve Mississippi PIC's Oct. 9 disclosure is how it has spent its money so far. WLBT FCC disclosure forms and advertising contracts (here and here) listed "American Media & Advocacy Group" as the media buyer for Improve Mississippi advertisements that aired Oct. 2-11 during shows ranging from the NBC Nightly News to Sunday Night Football. Total cost for those nine days of ads was invoiced at $13,800.
The Improve Mississippi's Oct. 9 secretary of state disclosure form showed a total of $150.16 in disbursements for the entire calendar year through the end of September.
American Media and Advocacy Group LLC emerged in 2012 as a top media buyer for a bevy of conservative-issues advertisers in the 2012 election. The group seems to prefer staying in the shadows, as it appears to have no Web presence. A 2013 NBC investigation found that American Media and Advocacy Group came in No. 5 in media-buyer expenditures ($27 million) in the 2012 presidential election.
Data searches show that American Media and Advocacy Group is housed in the office of Robin Roberts' political-media firm, National Media Inc., in Alexandria, Va. The media buyer who signed the WLBT order for the television ads of Improve Mississippi, Ben Angle, is listed on the National Media website as an employee of that company.
Sourcewatch.org, an online transparency website, reported that CEO Roberts, whose LinkedIn page says has owned the firm since 1981, was the media buyer for the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign. Sourcewatch reported that the firm has also produced many ads for Citizens for Better Medicare, which supported the pharmaceutical lobby's effort to avoid lower prescription-drug prices.
Enter the Koch Brothers
While Improve Mississippi seems to be the local bundler for cash committed against Initiative 42, the KidsFirst Mississippi Political Initiative Committee, formed on July 31, 2015, is financed by exactly two donors.
Its director, Russ Latino, put in $3,176.62 this year, and the Koch brothers' national advocacy organization, Americans for Prosperity, donated $119,370.38 between Sept. 16, 2015 and Sept. 30, 2015.
KidsFirst has reported only $159.50 in total expenditures as of its September report, but shows only $110,285.00 cash on hand; a difference of $12,102.50.
Latino, the Mississippi director for Americans for Prosperity, is also the director for KidsFirst Mississippi and two other PACs, Forward Mississippi, which donates only to Republican candidates, and Russ PAC, formed in 2010, which has two reports in 2011 on the Secretary of State's website.
Latino did not respond to the JFP for this story. His stance on Initiative 42 is clear, however, in recent columns on bamsouth.com and the Madison County Journal.
On Oct. 6, Latino wrote in the Madison County Journal, focusing on the lone Hinds County judge the initiative's opponents claim will control MAEP money: "Because of how broad this new judicial power is, a judge will have limitless authority to engage in education decisions that will affect our children, our schools and our economy."
In reality, the issue would go to Hinds County Chancery Court because the Legislature is in Jackson, and only if legislators continued to ignore the law after the initiative passed. That court's decision could be appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court.
In August, the KidsFirst Mississippi PIC received $1,000 from Americans for Prosperity, enough to pay for a Gov. Phil Bryant radio spot. In the 30-second radio ad Bryant says: "If 42 passes, a judge in Hinds County will control our schools. Our children's future and billions of taxpayer dollars hang in the balance—Deborah and I are deeply committed to public education, but 42 is bad for our kids and bad for our economy."
Expenditures for the Bryant ad do not appear on the KidsFirst September or October reports on the secretary of state's website.
Brothers Charles and David Koch, the principal owners of the oil and chemical conglomerate Koch Industries, founded Americans for Prosperity in 2004 and have had heavy hands in other education-related elections across the United States. In Denver, Colo., the organization has funded candidates for county school board positions in an effort to effect changes to curricula and to support "school choice." The "school reform" agenda of organizations like Americans for Prosperity is affecting policies in Nashville, Tenn., as well. There the Charles Koch Foundation held an event in 2014 titled, "Education Opportunities: A Path Forward for Students in Tennessee," to provide an "in-depth policy discussion" about public education and other issues.
The pro-Initiative 42 campaign, Better Schools Better Jobs, has raised a total of $1.292 million in 2015. Read about the donors at jfp.ms/pro42funds. The next date for campaign-finance filings is Oct. 27 for PICs and PACs, a week before the election.
See the JFP's full archive on Initiative 42 and MAEP at jfp.ms/maep.