The Hawaii State Teachers Association terminated its campaign to discourage voters from approving a constitutional amendment dealing with preschools last week after realizing it risked breaking the law by spending money on a ballot measure through its political action committee.

Upon realizing it faced a major problem, the HSTA quickly formed a “ballot issue committee” — “For the Future of Our Keiki” — and registered it with the Campaign Spending Commission last Wednesday. Such groups can only advocate for or against ballot measures like “Question No. 4,” which in this case is a highly controversial ballot initiative that would allow the state to spend public money on private preschool programs.

“We assumed it (the campaign) could be paid for with our PAC,” Al Nagasako, the HSTA’s executive director, told Civil Beat on Friday. “When we started looking at how different ballot issues were conducted in the past, we realized, ‘Oh, we screwed up.’”

hsta rally

The HSTA is the only union representing Hawaii’s public school teachers and often engages in political activity such as this rally last October.

Alia Wong/Civil Beat

It’s still unclear what will happen to the roughly $142,000 the union’s PAC has reported spending on the ballot initiative, including nearly $141,000 paid to a production company to air the ad on local TV stations through November.

Nagasako said on Monday that the union is “still having the discussions” with the producer to determine what, if any, refunds it can get for the ad spots it purchased but will not use.

The commercial — which did air for two days on TV the week of Sept. 22, the day of the campaign’s high-profile promotional launch — cannot run without getting the union into potential legal trouble.

The HSTA paid $1,562 to Stryker Weiner & Yakota, the union’s public relations firm, in July to produce the commercial.

The union’s PAC is funded almost entirely by the dues teachers pay from their paychecks.

Unlike PACs, ballot issue committees, which have to close up shop 90 days after Election Day, face no limit on the amount of contributions they can take in.

Money from the ballot issue committee, “For the Future of Our Keiki,” has to remain separate from the HSTA. Spending and fundraising reports for the ballot issue committee aren’t yet available.

Nagasako said the union decided to form the ballot issue committee “to err on the safe side.”

Gary Kam, general counsel for the Campaign Spending Commission, said it’s advisable for a PAC such as the HSTA to form a separate committee “if they want to ensure that the ballot issue committee is able to get unlimited contributions.” Otherwise, the PAC would risk violating campaign finance law.

Unlike “For the Future of Our Keiki,” most ballot issue committees start from scratch. Kam, who has worked at the Campaign Spending Commission since 2011, said this is the first time the issue has come up.

Nagasako said the union decided to form the ballot issue committee “to err on the safe side.”

“We could have just waited ‘til the end, when they could’ve whacked us with a fine,” he said.

“I do not know how (the ballot issue committee is) going to be funded — I’m going to keep an arm’s length from that,” he continued. “I’m staying away from the con am (constitutional amendment) as much as I can.”

No More Commercial

The union is the sole bargaining unit for the state’s 13,000 or so public school teachers. The HSTA fervently opposes the public-private preschool system that the constitutional amendment could make possible — the model Gov. Neil Abercrombie proposed as part of his early education initiative.

The TV commercial argued that the amendment would only bring preschool opportunities for “the privileged few.” The HSTA prefers a preschool model that’s fully funded by the state and involves establishing pre-kindergarten classrooms on DOE campuses statewide.

The decision to form a separate committee highlights why the union abruptly yanked its TV ad and related media off the Internet and airwaves immediately after the launch, as Civil Beat reported last Wednesday, Oct. 1.

It turns out that was the same day the HSTA registered “For the Future of Our Keiki” with the Campaign Spending Commission. Its bookkeeper is Roger Takabayashi, the union’s former president and a current member of the State Charter School Commission.

Civil Beat first inquired about the commercial’s disappearance from the airwaves last Monday. A spokeswoman with Stryker Weiner & Yokata confirmed that day that the ad was no longer running but couldn’t explain the reasoning until Thursday — the day after Civil Beat’s story ran.

Nagasako, who Civil Beat tried to contact on Wednesday, said on Friday he couldn’t comment on the matter until after the union finalized its decision to form a separate committee.

Other Key Players

Three additional ballot issue committees have registered with the Campaign Spending Commission to advocate for or against Question No. 4: the Good Beginnings Alliance — Children’s Action Network, Kamehameha Schools Early Education Support and Learning Matters.

Filings with the Federal Communications Commission show that Good Beginnings Alliance, the only other ballot issue committee that appears to have purchased airtime for Question No. 4 so far, has spent nearly $300,000 on commercials. Its 30-second ads, including one launched Monday, are titled “Yes on 4 — Yes Brainer” and argue that the amendment “will give more kids a chance for a healthy start when brain development is at its peak.”

Good Beginnings Alliance’s PAC has reported receiving $505,200 from donors, including $500,000 from Kamehameha Schools. The alliance’s campaign also has the support of business organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Hawaii Business Roundtable.

Meanwhile, records filed on Monday with the FCC also show that the National Education Association, the national affiliate of the HSTA, has also bought airtime starting next week. But the contracts don’t specify what the commercial says. The NEA did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

As of Monday afternoon, filings show that the national union has agreed to pay more than $68,000 for spots on local TV stations.

 

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