Emails Reveal Right-Wing Lobbyists Driving PA Treasurer’s Pro-Voucher Budget Strategy

Shown is a class room at Penn Wood High School in Lansdowne, Pa., Wednesday, May 3, 2023. As schools across the country struggle to find teachers to hire, more governors are pushing for pay increases and bonuses for the beleaguered profession. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

By Sean Kitchen

September 19, 2023

Emails obtained by The Keystone show the influence the Commonwealth Foundation and the Pennsylvania Treasurer’s office had during budget negotiations to push the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success Scholarships through the legislature.  

“Also, CF [Commonwealth Foundation] will be prepared to help with and finance a robust marketing campaign, should this pass in the next few weeks,” Nathan Benefield, the Senior Vice President of the Commonwealth Foundation, wrote in an email to Charles Zogby, a senior staffer inside the State Treasurer’s office, on Jun 23, 2023

Benefield was emailing the long-time Republican staffer from Treasurer Stacy Garrity’s office anticipating the passage of the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) scholarship program with the July 1 budget deadline looming.

The voucher program would fund scholarships to send students from the state’s lowest achieving schools – or schools in the bottom 15% of standardized test scores – to private or religious schools. The scholarships range between $2,500 for half-day kindergarten students to $10,000 for high school students. 

Email between Nathan Benefield and Charles Zogby

The Keystone obtained emails through a Right to Know request from Garrity’s office that offers insight into the roles the Commonwealth Foundation, a right-wing organization, and the Treasurer’s office had during the voucher program’s legislative process. 

Jeffrey Yass, Pennsylvania’s richest billionaire, and the Commonwealth Foundation were two of the biggest promoters of PASS, or lifeline scholarship program, over the past several months. Documents obtained by The Keystone show the Commonwealth Foundation and businesses associated with Yass collecting millions from two other voucher programs – the Education Improvement Tax Credit and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit programs – throughout the pandemic. 

The emails show that staffers from the Commonwealth Foundation were in communication with Garrity’s office since the end of February when they were in the process of scheduling a meeting with staff members on Education Savings Accounts and school choice. They remained in contact with each other going into the spring and up through the budget deadline. 

Leaders from the Commonwealth Foundation were in contact with members of Garrity’s office the day after the House and Senate introduced their versions of the lifeline scholarship. Stephen Bloom, the Vice President of the Commonwealth Foundation, emailed Tom Armstrong, the Policy Director in the State Treasurer’s office, an updated fact sheet and set of talking points to share with Garrity and others.

“Tom, with the Senate and the House versions of the Lifeline Scholarship bills having been introduced, we wanted to promptly provide you with our updated Fact Sheet and Talking Points on the bills. Please share with Treasurer Garrity and others on your team as you deem appropriate,” Bloom wrote. 

Lifeline Scholarship Talking Points from the Commonwealth Foundation

Throughout the process, staffers in Garrity’s office were working with Senate Republicans in order to get their version of the voucher program into law. Joshua Wilson, from Garrity’s office, emailed Russ Miller from the Senate Appropriations Committee, on June 9, 2023 about a response to the upcoming legislation. 

The Treasurer’s office was unable to provide a response to the Senate on that date because Garrity has other arrangements, but Wilson wrote, “While the program is slimmed in scope from last session, it is still obviously a substantive and important program that is outside the scope of our current duties.”

Wilson ended the email by saying, “I know this may result in us missing the bill introduction but hopefully there will be another bite or two at the proverbial legislative apple via amend in Education or Approps.”   

Then on June 23, 2023, Miller emails Zogby and Wilson from Garrity’s office about the amendments they provided the Senate earlier that week. Zogby forwards the amended voucher legislation to Garrity and Allen Hugh saying, “Attached you will find the latest draft of the Lifeline Scholarship bill. By my read …, this draft reflects the changes that the Treasury had requested.”

Garrity responds enthusiastically saying, “Agreed!”

Prior to the Senate passing the state budget on June 30, Senate Democratic staffers were asking organizations where they stood on the amendments, which included the PASS scholarships. Benefield replied to the Senate Democrats saying, “We stand with Gov. Shapiro in support of this amendment.”

The following week, Gov. Josh Shapiro held a press conference promising to veto the voucher program after Democrats passed the budget. After Shapiro vetoed the lifeline scholarship, a Commonwealth Foundation associated organization, Commonwealth Action, spent money on an ad campaign targeting House Democrats and House Majority Leader Matthew Bradford (D-Montgomery) for stopping the voucher program from becoming law. 

 

Author

  • Sean Kitchen

    Sean Kitchen is the Keystone’s political correspondent, based in Harrisburg. Sean is originally from Philadelphia and spent five years working as a writer and researcher for Pennsylvania Spotlight.

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