News Story

Astroturf? Facebook Page Promotes Union Politics Under Tea Party Flag

On pension reform, it quacks like a government employee union

A Facebook page that claims to be the voice of a Michigan tea party group that supports limited government is promoting a policy stance that may suggest a different author. The page, Citizens for Tax Freedom, appears to have a position on just one issue, and one that echoes the stance of the state’s largest teachers union, the Michigan Education Association.

The Facebook page has had eight posts since Jan. 3. Five were posted in May, and they oppose possible reforms to Michigan’s state-run retirement system for public school employees. This is the same stance the MEA has taken on pension reform. The Legislature is expected to move on a series of bills addressing the state's pension crisis sometime in the near future.

The page had 1,640 likes as of 10:45 a.m. Thursday.

Its Facebook profile photo features the Gadsen flag, often used by tea party groups. The page says, “Citizens for Tax Freedom is a citizen-driven group of concerned patriots fighting for smaller government and less taxes.”

Mary Moylan, a Republican from the Saginaw area, is a conservative who feels she may have been misled by the page after she liked it when it appeared in her Facebook news stream.

“I just liked it due to its title, rather mindlessly, I suppose,” Moylan said. “I haven’t really been on the page itself. It’s a good warning for Facebook users to look more closely at what crops up on their wall and not to assume anything.”

The Citizens for Tax Freedom Facebook page responded to a message from Michigan Capitol Confidential with this:

“We are true grassroots patriots. We will not talk more about who we are for the establishment fake media. We are not going to allow you to attack us for speaking our mind. You all are bought and paid for by the elites not the conservatives that power this movement and powered us all to winning. We are tired of being co-opted by groups that say they speak for us.”

Citizens for Tax Freedom first appeared on Facebook on Jan. 3 with a post that contained just a masthead. On Feb. 7, a Ronald Reagan meme was posted with the quote: “The American people are not undertaxed, the government in Washington is overfed.”

There was no further activity on the page until five posts were made in May, four of them opposing pension reform proposals.

Wendy Day, a grass roots tea party activist, said she had suspicions about the page.

“It looks like an MEA-sponsored page trying to sound like they actually care about lowering taxes,” Day said in a message. She said the language and the issue-framing were suspect. She concluded, “Clever to use the Gadsden flag and try to motivate the Republicans to work against themselves.”

Pension reform began getting more attention this month it after it was endorsed by the group Business Leaders of Michigan. Other groups which have called for new school employees to be shifted to a 401(k)-type plan include the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Business-Michigan, Michigan Realtors, Michigan Homebuilders Association, Michigan Freedom Fund, Americans for Prosperity-Michigan, the Great Lakes Education Project, and more. Gov. Rick Snyder told reporters that obstacles to reform may be smaller than he previously imagined.

The public school pension system has a $29.1 billion gap between how much the state has saved to cover pensions promised to retirees and how much its own experts say is needed to actually honor those promises.

Reformers, including the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, say the state should stop enrolling new school employees into the system and instead make employer contributions into 401(k)-type retirement accounts each employee would own.