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Secret Donors in Idaho Ed. Ballot Wars Lead to "Sunshine" Lawsuit

UPDATED

In this election season, any combination of "secret donors" and three high-stakes education ballot initiatives is too tempting for State Edwatch to resist. In this case, the game is afoot in Idaho, where three propositions on the Nov. 6 ballot will determine whether three laws passed in 2011 (related to collective bargaining rights, merit pay, and technology access) will remain on the books.

Superintendent Tom Luna was a primary backer of the laws that passed the state legislature and were signed by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter. But the Idaho Education Association and others succeeded in putting them on the ballot this year for voters to decide their fate directly. (Each law will be voted on separately, and a "yes" vote on the ballot means the law in question will be upheld.) They are among the most prominent education-related ballot initiatives in the country. They have generated a great deal of controversy in Idaho, and the latest is connected to about $200,000 in campaign spending by a group called Education Voters of Idaho. The cash was spent on TV ads in support of the "Luna Laws," as the Spokesman-Review has reported.

None of that would be remarkable...except for the fact that Education Voters of Idaho has not registered as a political committee with Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, and so they don't turn up on this list of committees for ballot measures. That fact is not sitting well with Ysursa, who has sued the group in order to make them disclose their donors, as normal political committees involved in such campaign work would. Ysursa said he was operating within the bounds of the Sunshine Initiative, which state voters passed in 1974 as a way to prevent political groups from hiding contributors.

"Pre-election disclosure is an integral part of the Sunshine Law," Ysursa said in a statement. "This office believes (Education Voters of Idaho) is a political committee under the law and must report as such."

What's the response from the group? In an Oct. 22 op-ed, Debbie Field (founder and board chairwoman) and John Foster (founder and executive director) said their group has been misunderstood and maligned "due to the same politicization that is bogging down reforms and our state's schools." As a 501(c)4, they say disclosure isn't required of them.

They also stress that they formed the group to help parents get off the "sidelines" and into a game dominated by academics, school boards, think tanks, and teachers' unions. They also call out Ysursa and the "union" for trying to suppress them.

"We are not an arm of any other organization," they wrote, addressing the central point. "We do not exist to support any one person. We were not founded to represent a specific set of political interests."

Field, by the way, is a former legislator who has a background in Republican politics, while Foster is a past executive director of the state Democratic party and a former journalist, according to the statement.

I tried to visit Education Voters of Idaho's website listed on the statement, but it doesn't appear to work. There's a hearing in District Court on Friday to determine whether the group must disclose its donors, according to the Associated Press.

One interpretation of events is that, in an effort to stress its role as a group of concerned parents above the political fray, the group has merely become entangled in another form of campaign mud-flinging. Ysursa, by the way, is a Republican first elected in 2002.

UPDATE: I should note here that a group called Parents for Education Reform, which lists Debbie Field as its chairwoman, does show up on Ysursa's list of political committees involved in campaign spending. And its only itemized contribution for the reporting period, in turn, comes from Education Voters of Idaho, in the amount of $200,000. But the contributors to Education Voters of Idaho, in turn, doesn't appear on the disclosure report.

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