Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa filed a lawsuit late Oct. 22 in state court to force disclosure of donors who contributed to a nonprofit supporting public schools chief Tom Luna’s education overhaul.
Ysursa has threatened for days to take the case to court. He filed a 13-page lawsuit in 4th District Court in Boise against a group called Education Voters of Idaho.
The group has so far chipped in more than $200,000 that was ultimately used to pay for campaign ads supporting the education changes being challenged at the ballot box next month.
EVI founders have resisted disclosing its donors, saying they’re protected by federal law, and accused Ysursa of singling out the group.
Citing Idaho’s 38-year-old Sunshine laws governing campaign finance, Ysursa wants a judge to identify EVI as a political committee and disclose donors who gave more than $50.
“The voters made it clear, when they passed the Sunshine initiative, that public disclosure is an essential element of Idaho elections,” Ysursa said. “The citizens want to know where the money comes from and how it’s spent. My job is to enforce that law.”
Ysursa said Oct. 22 that similar demands were made of other groups, including the Idaho Education Association and National Education Association teachers unions, to disclose any of their members’ contributions to the ballot measures that exceed $50.
The NEA has contributed nearly $1.1 million to efforts to the defeat Luna’s overhaul, while the state group has given about $180,000.
On Oct. 22, Idaho Education Association spokeswoman Whitney Rearick told The Associated Press that the organizations are reviewing Idaho’s law and their members’ contributions to efforts to the defeat Luna’s overhaul, to discern if any individual donors must be reported.
After Ysursa filed the lawsuit, Education Voters of Idaho’s founder, lobbyist John Foster reiterated his group’s position: Federal law allows him to protect the identities of donors to his nonprofit, 501(c)4 corporation, to buttress their free-speech rights.
“Our position has not changed,” Foster said, declining further comment because of pending litigation.
Earlier in the day, Foster and another EVI founder, former GOP state lawmaker Debbie Field, suggested that Ysursa, a three-term Republican, had joined forces with the teachers union in a bid to silence their work promoting changes in Idaho’s educational system.
“Attacks against us show just how dangerous a powerful group of motivated parents will be to a politicized system in desperate need of improvement and change,” Field and Foster wrote. “Although efforts by the secretary of state, the union and its allies have temporarily chilled our ability to fulfill our mission, we won’t back down.”
Luna’s education changes limit union bargaining power, promote teacher merit pay, and require online classes and student laptop computers.
Education Voters of Idaho contributed more than $200,000 to a related political action committee, Parents for Education Reform, for broadcast advertising meant to help save the overhaul. The two groups share leaders and addresses, and Education Voters of Idaho was founded on Aug. 16, in the midst of the campaign.
Still, Foster contends the nonprofit side has a broader mission of promoting changes to Idaho’s public schools — not merely financing the referendums.
“We were tired of education reform getting caught up politics and being focused on personalities,” he and Field wrote. “We decided to do something about it, and founded EVI to push sound policies on behalf of parents and taxpayers throughout the state.”
Ysursa’s office said it doesn’t want to stifle any of the group’s advocacy efforts.
“I welcome the involvement,” he said.
Still, he wants Education Voters of Idaho to disclose its donors before the Nov. 6 election, so voters have a chance to see just who is behind its money.
“Pre-election disclosure is an integral part of the Sunshine Law,” Ysursa wrote. “This office believes EVI is a political committee under the law and must report as such.”