A GOVERNOR FOR SALE?
After running a self-financed campaign to prove he was not beholden to wealthy interest groups, Governor Jared Polis (D) is gladly allowing those groups to pay more than $1 million worth of salaries in his office. Under secretive agreements fettered with non-disclosure clauses, interest groups like the U.S. Climate Alliance and the Emerson Collective have been able to place employees in the governor’s office. Advocacy groups are attempting to implement their agenda by directly funding attorneys and policy staff within the government itself.
Governor Polis’ top adviser on climate change, who is responsible for “moving Colorado to 100 percent renewable energy and hitting pollution reduction targets”, is funded by the U.S. Climate Alliance. The Alliance works with the government to combat climate change by ensuring member states voluntarily abide by the Paris Climate Accords. It conducts a program designed to embed staff funded by affiliated non-profits into executive branch offices of the governors of member states. These “sponsored” employees work as de facto environmental and climate experts and have full latitude to work on litigation and policy matters.
This effort to implant staff is nominally overseen and run out of the Ted Turner funded UN Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a heavy focus on environmental issues, although several other nonprofits take part in funding and embedding staff as well. These nonprofit organizations include the World Resources Institute, the Georgetown Climate Center, and The Climate Group.
Functionally, to place staffers in executive offices, the Alliance proposes to top aides of a targeted governor that the administration host a staff member who will work solely on climate issues. Should a willingness exist, a partner nonprofit then fully funds that position and the Alliance works with the governor’s office to fill this new role within the administration. While the embedded staff member is paid directly by the government, the state invoices the nonprofit for the cost of that person’s compensation
This individual is treated as a government employee and therefore may suggest regulations, legislation, and policy much like anyone else on state payroll. The significant difference is that an outside entity ultimately funds these individuals’ positions. Because the Alliance is not incorporated and its funding and expenses are spread among several groups, it is difficult to guess the funding levels of its initiatives. However, internal emails obtained via public records requests by the Competitive Enterprise Institute pin the Alliance’s budget for embedded staff at $10 million in 2018, with potential funding increases to $25 million in 2019, and $50 million reportedly sought for 2020.
Governmental use of staff paid for by nonprofits such as the U.S. Climate Alliance raises significant conflict of interest concerns. As these individuals are compensated by the advocacy group that placed them in their role, there is an inherent conflict as to whether the staff member is working to advance the interests of the state or pushing an outside group’s agenda. Those two roles may not necessarily be aligned. While one might assume that nonprofit funded staff would have in mind the best interest of the state in which they are embedded, the optics would almost assuredly be different if a plaintiffs’ law firm or even a large corporation did the same exact thing. For example, consider the outcry that would likely result if the tobacco industry embedded a staff member in the state health department. Similarly, what would be the response to a hedge fund embedding
a top analyst with a state’s pension fund? And why stop at a single position? What if a food manufacturer or organic advocacy group funded an entire division within a state health department or consumer protection agency? As these hypotheticals show, the arrangements in place in certain states with the U.S. Climate Alliance violate both commonsense and basic good government.
LEGISLATORS CALL FOR TRANSPARENCY
Bipartisan legislators and officials have condemned the practice and called for greater transparency. “These are funds the Joint Budget Committee has no discretion or appropriation authority over, and it is something that has caught our attention and something that is concerning,” said Senator Dominick Moreno (D).
Despite the governor’s lead, Attorney General Phil Weiser (D) declined the opportunity to incorporate climate change attorneys funded by a similar group – the Bloomberg-funded NYU State Energy & Environmental Impact Center.