- Associated Press - Saturday, March 22, 2014

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - In the fight over Medicaid expansion in Virginia - a debate that could lead to a state government shutdown - two of the groups leading public relations efforts on both sides are opaquely funded nonprofits with ties to wealthy out-of-state activists.

Helping make the case against Medicaid expansion is Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit tea party group backed by billionaire oil magnates David and Charles Koch. A leading message-shaping group in support of Medicaid expansion is ProgressVa, a subsidiary of a liberal group that began more than a decade ago in Colorado and has links to several rich liberal activists.

As nonprofits designated as “social welfare” organizations by the IRS - also known as a 501(c)4s - both groups can operate without detailing their donors.

“Like virtually every other 501(c)4 organization across the political spectrum, ProgressVA protects our donors by not disclosing their names,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of ProgressVa.

Nor do the groups have to disclose how much they are spending on their respective efforts in Virginia.

That bothers some elected officials.

“If they are going to participate in policy issues, they should be required to say who they are, and who their donors are,” said Sen. John Watkins, one of three Republican senators who supports expanding Medicaid eligibility. “What’s at stake is the ability of the public to understand where these points of view are coming from.”

Lawmakers adjourned from their regular legislative session earlier this month without passing a roughly $96 billion biennial budget. Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the Democratically controlled Senate want a version of Medicaid expansion that emphasizes the use of private insurers in the state budget. The GOP-controlled House opposes Medicaid expansion, whatever its form.

McAuliffe had made expanding Medicaid a key legislative goal of his new administration and has said the state, and rural hospitals in particular, cannot afford to forgo $5 million a day in federal funding. Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government has pledged to cover the bulk of an expanded Medicaid program.

But House Republicans have argued that the state’s current Medicaid is already too costly and growing unsustainably. They have also pointed to the flawed rollout of the new health care law as a sign that Virginia should be weary of enacting one of its key provisions.

A special session is set to start Monday, but there’s been no sign the two sides are close to a compromise. Without a budget in place by July 1, state agencies won’t have funds to operate.

In recent weeks, Americans for Prosperity has run state-wide radio ads and organized small rallies around the state against Medicaid expansion.

At a rally earlier this year at the Capitol, AFP President Tim Phillips said his group was going to make sure that House Republicans “keep their word” and maintain their opposition Medicaid expansion.

“We’re going to trust but verify,” said Phillips.

Sen. Emmett Hanger, an Augusta Republican, said Americans For Prosperity sent “slick” campaign-style mailers to his constituents last year urging them to call Hanger and tell him to reconsider his support for expanded Medicaid eligibility. Hanger said he felt like he has been attacked by “carpetbaggers and big-money interests from out of state.”

Americans for Prosperity has been active in federal and state races around the country, spending millions attacking President Barack Obama and other supporters of the Affordable Care Act. The Koch brothers, who helped found Americans for Prosperity and are two of the wealthiest men in America, have become a favorite target of national Democrats.

The Koch brother’s Kansas-based oil company, Koch Industries, was also one of the biggest recent donors to Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell’s political action committee, giving the PAC $50,000 last year. The PAC is currently paying for an online petition urging McAuliffe to allow a state budget to pass without Medicaid expansion.

On the left, ProgressVA has emerged as one of the leading message-shaping members of a coalition of left-leaning groups advocating for Medicaid expansion.

ProgressVa helped organize a petition drive that delivered more than 10,000 petitions to Howell’s office in favor of Medicaid expansion. The group also helped organize a rally at the Capitol last week that drew several hundred proponents.

The group’s finances are controlled by ProgressNow, a liberal group that began more than a decade ago in Colorado and has affiliates in several states. ProgressNow’s past and current board members include Taco Bell heir Rob McKay, technology entrepreneur U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colorado, and Democratic political strategist Ted Trimpa, who the Atlantic Magazine once dubbed “Colorado’s answer to Karl Rove.”

ProgressNow’s budget is a small fraction of Americans for Prosperity’s, according to the most recently available tax records, but ProgressNow’s political advocacy goals are more narrowly defined.

The group bills itself as a “year-round, never-ending” media campaign dedicated to improving “communications effort of the entire progressive community in our states.” Its affiliates typically partner with better-funded liberal nonprofits and labor unions to promote various causes.

In the Virginia Medicaid expansion debate, ProgressVA has partnered with the state chapters of the AFL-CIO and SEIU, abortion-rights groups and other nonprofits that don’t reveal their donors.

Scholl, ProgressVA’s executive director, said she could not provide information on how much of her groups funding came from Virginia but said “regular Virginians” are among her groups’ donors.

“We’re proud to serve as a voice for working Virginians to ensure they’re heard in important policy debates,” said Scholl.

Sean Lansing, the head of the Americans For Prosperity’s Virginia chapter, also declined to provide specifics about his group’s finances but said it was funded by “folks across Virginia who believe in economic freedom and in policies that empower taxpayers at every income level.”

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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