A group opposed to expanding Medicaid is running television ads that appear to be trying to influence Nebraskans’ vote on the issue, but a loophole in state campaign law means the source of the group’s funding will likely never be known.
The Alliance for Taxpayers has already spent at least $50,000 on TV ads seen across the state in recent days. But a spokesperson for the group said that since the ads are only informational — not specifically telling voters to oppose Initiative 427 — Nebraska laws governing the disclosure of campaign donations and how much is being spent do not apply.
“It is merely giving people information,” said Gail Gitcho, a Boston-based political consultant who is assisting the Alliance for Taxpayers. “The Alliance raised funds, and those donors don’t have to be disclosed under law, so we don’t disclose those donors.”
Initiative 427 would expand the state’s Medicaid program to cover an additional 90,000 Nebraskans, most of whom work in low-wage jobs that don’t offer health insurance.
The initiative’s supporters this week decried the Alliance for Taxpayers’ lack of transparency and called its ad distorted and misleading.
The ad says Medicaid expansion “means hundreds of millions of dollars in new taxes.” With the federal government picking up 90 percent of the cost of expansion, estimates from the Legislature and the state have put the annual cost to Nebraska taxpayers at between $39 million and $57 million.
“It doesn’t shock me based on their half-truths that they are not going to be transparent about their donors,” said Adam Morfeld, a state senator from Lincoln who is serving as a paid consultant on the Insure the Good Life campaign that is pushing expansion.
Insure the Good Life is also running television ads, which emphasize that the measure would bring federal tax dollars back to Nebraska, provide health insurance for “hardworking” Nebraskans and create 11,000 jobs.
Also Friday, the Nebraska affiliate of Americans for Prosperity, the limited-government advocacy organization founded by Republican donors Charles and David Koch, launched radio advertisements urging Nebraskans to vote no on Initiative 427. The state director for the organization did not return a phone call on whether it is working in conjunction with the Alliance for Taxpayers.
Gov. Pete Ricketts has strongly opposed expansion measures in the Legislature and has never been afraid to spend his own money in Nebraska campaigns. But he has not donated to the Alliance for Taxpayers, the spokesman for his re-election campaign said.
The Alliance for Taxpayers incorporated in Nebraska as a nonprofit earlier this month, listing its address as a post office box in Elkhorn. It then began making ad purchases at television stations in Omaha, Lincoln and the central part of the state.
Forms television stations are required to file with the Federal Communications Commission show the group has spent at least $50,000 to date, though it’s likely not all the forms are yet on file, and many of the forms only cover ad buys through this weekend. The election is Nov. 6.
Besides saying Medicaid expansion would raise taxes, the ads say expansion would give free health care to adults without requiring them to look for jobs, take away from the truly needy, and result in less funding for roads, schools and property tax relief.
Some of the FCC documents list three officers for the organization: Marc Kaschke, Deana Layden and Dan Pauley.
Kaschke, a former North Platte mayor who now lives in Omaha, said he is president of the organization, and said the other officers are also Nebraskans. He declined to answer other questions, referring them to Gitcho.
Gitcho, who formerly worked as press secretary for the Republican National Committee, said the mission of the Alliance for Taxpayers is to inform taxpayers and spread a message of fiscal responsibility, lower taxes and reduced government waste.
She said the ads are intended to educate the public on expansion but acknowledged they are set to run in only four states — Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming and South Dakota.
She said that since the ads do not urge a vote against Initiative 427, there is no requirement that the group file disclosure reports with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. Indeed, the ads don’t mention there is even an upcoming vote on the issue.
Frank Daley, director of the state disclosure commission, said the U.S. Supreme Court has essentially held that informational ads that don’t use the “magic words” — urging a vote for or against a candidate or ballot issue — are not campaign ads and thus not governed by campaign disclosure laws.
The high court has said states can enact narrowly tailored disclosure laws regarding such informational ads. But to date the Nebraska Legislature has declined to do so. Opponents of such bills have said they would infringe on free speech rights.
Jack Gould of the open government advocacy organization Common Cause Nebraska said a similar issue came up two years ago when Americans for Prosperity and another group calling itself “Trees of Liberty” distributed issue ads in several legislative races. It’s unfortunate such groups are able to impact elections without offering full disclosure, he said.
“They are able to hide the donors and hide the money,” Gould said. “It’s really troubling.”
The Insure the Good Life campaign has filed its required disclosure reports with the state, so far detailing $1.7 million in contributions. They include more than $1 million from the Fairness Project, a labor-backed national organization that supports efforts to take issues of economic fairness directly to voters, as well as significant backing from Nebraska Appleseed, the Center for Rural Affairs and the Nebraska State Education Association.