What Is Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance’s Problem?

The Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance has been taking heat over its 'voter education' materials, and deservedly so.

In mailings, newspaper ads, and other materials, the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance has been claiming, with the weakest of justifications, that certain targeted state legislators voted to prioritize illegal immigrants over veterans for public housing. That’s a crock. They did no such thing.

I feel pretty confident saying that, because I asked the guy who sponsored the amendment at issue, state representative Geoff Diehl. “Have the people who voted against it prioritized immigrants over veterans for housing ? Not necessarily,” Diehl says.

Democrats have been bitching about these MFA attacks for some time, but they have kept coming. Peter Ubertaccio, of MassPoliticalProfs does a good job explaining, the actual vote on whether to allow a vote on Diehl’s amendment, which would require the state to collect and check Social Security numbers of those applying for housing benefits. Diehl notes that federal law requires a valid Social Security number for housing benefits; some on the left say that state law precludes checking those numbers—and the reality is that most lawmakers really don’t want to take an up-or-down vote on this kind of thing, which is what a vote on the amendment would force. Diehl, by offering the amendment on a bill dealing with veterans services, gave House leadership an easy excuse to rule it not germane, so it could be tossed out. Diehl argues that it was relevant because there have been issues with getting housing for veterans returning from combat; but let’s be honest, the House rules are there for the leadership to use to get things to happen as they want, and they didn’t want a vote on this amendment, so not germane was an easy call.

By voting in agreement with the not-germane ruling, were state reps dodging the real issue? Sure. Were many of them probably just voting as they were told, and didn’t even know what the amendment was even about? Probably. Is the House a closed autocracy where a small number of people dictate what measures see the light of day? Yeah. And all of this is fair game for criticism.

But none of them were prioritizing illegal immigrants over veterans for housing benefits. That’s just ridiculous, incendiary nonsense. Of course, ridiculous, incendiary nonsense is part of politics. It’s worth pointing out and criticizing, but normally I wouldn’t get particularly bothered by it.

But MFA is a tax-exempt 501c(4) organization, that is supposed to be doing “voter education,” not politicking for or against candidates. And, in particular, it is supposed to be educating voters on MFA’s mission issues—which, according to everything I’ve always seen from them, is all about bringing budget responsibility, low taxes, easing of business regulations, and government transparency to Beacon Hill.

So why stir up this kind of nonsense, by making this rather small-potatoes vote on undocumented-immigrant benefits, one of the key issues of their “voter education” campaign this year?

I asked MFA’s executive director, Paul Craney, and didn’t get much of an answer.

Craney would not directly defend his own group’s charge, that the lawmakers prioritized illegal immigrants over veterans. Instead, he said that it is up to the legislators to explain their vote. “The purpose is to highlight votes, and allow the lawmakers to respond” he said.

As for why the MFA is highlighting that vote, as one of four key votes in some literature, Craney said that it addresses mis-spent public funds. “You have an opportunity where benefits could be given preference to veterans over immigrants,” Craney said. The vote “touched on three issues of ours,” he said: taxpayer money, illegal immigration, and support for veterans. He then conceded that veterans services—of which I can find nothing on their website—is “not a huge part” of MFA’s agenda, and that immigration per se is not actually one of its issues, either.

But when I asked about the taxpayer money part, Craney also had no argument. I asked whether he knew of anything to suggest how much in housing benefits currently goes to those without valid Social Security numbers—if any at all—and he suggested I ask Diehl. I suggested that it seems rational for me to expect some information to be available from the “voter education” organization that is highlighting this specific argument about this specific issue. He still had no information to offer.

There is a bit more truth to something else that Craney said to me, which is that in choosing which, of the 40 or so House votes they scored, to use in their material, they looked for those “that an average person will care about.”

It’s true. If your purpose is to get average voters whipped up against an incumbent, the dozens of real, actual votes they take about various real, actual spending measures won’t be as effective as a vote supposedly about benefits possibly going to illegal immigrants, and linking that vote in a basically dishonest way to claim that those benefits are being willfully taken from veterans.

But that’s not “voter education.” That’s nasty politics in an attempt to sway an election result. And the MFA shouldn’t get to hide behind 501c(4) status while they do it—they should have to come out and do their nasty politics as a political action committee like everybody else.