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Idaho school reform backers say they won’t disclose donors

BOISE - Idaho’s campaign finance deadline came and went Wednesday without any word on who funded a statewide TV ad campaign in favor of controversial school reform measures - and backers say they don’t plan to disclose their donors.

Former state Rep. Debbie Field, the former two-time campaign manager for Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, said potential donors to the campaigns backing the reform laws are being told they have two avenues: Donate to the official “Yes for Education” campaign, which means their contributions will be reported; or give anonymously through two new groups she’s chairing.

Field said she believes people have been intimidated by unions on the school reform issue, and the groups provide an avenue “for people who really wanted to give, but didn’t want to go through the intimidation.” She said, “They will give if they feel like they can give anonymously to a place that will support education, but they don’t want to be maligned.”

The arrangement is currently under legal review at the Idaho Secretary of State’s office, and opponents of the measures decried it as a front for mischief and called the union intimidation claim “preposterous.”

“The existence of these entities raises the specter that corporations that have a direct and very lucrative financial interest in the outcome of this election have the ability to fund the advertising for this election anonymously,” said state Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, a spokesman for the campaign against the measures. “That’s what’s most frightening.”

The “Students Come First” reform laws include requiring the state to supply a laptop computer for every Idaho high school student, along with other technology boosts and a new focus on online learning. They also roll back teachers’ collective bargaining rights and impose a new merit-pay bonus system.

State lawmakers passed the laws in 2011 amid widespread opposition; when opponents appeared close to gathering enough signatures to place repeal measures on the ballot, lawmakers added emergency clauses to all three bills so that they’d take effect even before the 2012 public vote.

Field said, “In this instance, I feel like there’s been so much intimidation from the other side. There have been some teachers that have been fearful of coming out.”

Cronin responded, “That’s just preposterous. People know the teachers in their communities, and that’s not how they operate.”

Field is the chairman of Parents for Education Reform and Education Voters for Idaho, which share the same board members and address, and are funneling contributions from undisclosed donors into the ad campaign in favor of the referenda, Propositions 1, 2 and 3 on Idaho’s November ballot. A yes vote on the measures would keep the laws; a no vote would repeal them.

Field was among a group of lawmakers and former Supreme Court justices who signed a formal complaint in 2002 against a shadowy campaign of TV ads targeting then-Idaho Supreme Court Justice Linda Copple Trout, whose sponsors refused to disclose their funders. The complaint charged that the state’s sunshine laws were being evaded to allow secretly funded campaigning.

Roy Eiguren, the volunteer attorney for the lawmakers and justices, said at the time, “It’s the public’s right to know.” Idahoans for Tax Reform chairman Laird Maxwell refused to say where he got the money and said the ads were a matter of “free speech.”

“Ten years ago, it was personal - it was real personal,” Field said. She said the school reform fight is different. “This isn’t a political battle for me - this is about educating our kids.”

Field credited lobbyist and political activist John Foster for coming up with the idea to create Education Voters of Idaho as a 501c4 nonprofit organization, and keep its contributions anonymous. In campaign finance reports filed by Parents for Education Reform, the only source of funding cited is a $200,350 donation from Education Voters of Idaho, all but $32 of which was spent on the group’s pro-reform statewide TV ad campaign. Foster maintains that Education Voters of Idaho doesn’t have to file a campaign disclosure report; the Idaho Secretary of State’s office disagrees.

Tim Hurst, chief deputy secretary of state, said, “We think he does (have to report). We’ve got the attorneys looking at it, to see if he does or he doesn’t.”

Foster said, “We are still discussing with the Secretary of State the confusing, conflicting information and guidance we received, and we’re looking forward to resolving that confusion.”

“Yes for Idaho Education,” the official campaign in favor of the school reform measures, filed its campaign finance report Wednesday, showing it’s raised $164,858 and spent $112,679 on its campaign. The biggest contributions were $50,000 from Melaleuca and $15,000 from Hagadone Hospitality; other big givers included the Idaho Prosperity Fund and the Idaho Republican Party.

Meanwhile, the “No on Props 1,2,3” campaign, the group opposing the measures, filed its report, showing it has raised $1.4 million and spent $1.3 million, with the largest chunk, $1.06 million, coming from the National Education Association, and the rest coming either from in-kind donations from the Idaho Education Association or from hundreds of small donations from individuals across the state, all of which are listed in the 49-page report.

Asked if the anonymous fundraising has drawn on out-of-state groups or in-state individuals, Field said, “It’s been a little of both - quite frankly, people who are about education outside, and the biggest majority of it has come from inside the state.”

Foster declined to say how much the anonymous effort has raised.

Field said, “I’ve worked in campaigns for over 30 years, my own and others, and have always participated in full disclosure of the laws. I believe that is a wise purpose. … I think people need to know who supports you, I really do.” But in this case, she said, “We’re doing what is legal under the law now. … I have been told as the chairman of this very small board that we have filed the correct paperwork, that everything has been OK.”

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