Local Government
Whose Money Is It, Anyway?

Whose Money Is It, Anyway?

By Stuart Waldman.

Like any business-minded voter, I weigh each ballot proposition carefully to decide whether the benefit will outweigh any burden. As the leader of a business association, I can advocate and explain how each measure will impact jobs in the San Fernando Valley. Across the whole country, stakeholder groups can join together and exercise their First Amendment rights to build coalitions to drive voter opinion for or against ballot propositions.

You know who isn’t allowed to spend money shaping public opinion in support of new taxes? Public bodies such as municipal governments and agencies.

There’s a very fine line between voter education and advocacy. Technically, public bodies are allowed to educate the voter. Now, I would consider “education” to be the voter guides sent out by a city clerk or secretary of state. You know the ones – thin gray paper, dry explanations, carefully word-counted arguments and rebuttals with message-tested CAPITAL WORDS.

The County of Los Angeles has a different idea. Their voter “education” efforts require consultants, polling, cable TV ads and mailers. That sounds a lot like advocacy, you might say to yourself. Great minds indeed think alike, as the Fair Political Practices Commission, or FPPC, found that probable cause exists to move forward with a case against L.A. County supervisors for crossing this line for activity associated with Measure H in 2017.

A complaint has already been filed that the $11.2 million the County has budgeted to “educate” voters on Measure W, the stormwater tax on last week’s ballot, was also in violation of the state’s Political Reform Act. That amount of money dwarfs the contributions raised by both the Yes and No campaigns.

If the County settles with the FPPC or goes to administrative court, the County taxpayers are on the hook for a fine – meaning we will pay twice for an illegal campaign.

I supported Measure H and I opposed Measure W. But in both cases, the use of taxpayer funds to campaign – excuse me, “educate” – is inappropriate. Measures which will benefit our community will bring together stakeholder groups, as is the case with Measure H, which had a broad coalition of community groups supporting it.

As a taxpayer, I don’t want the County to face fines and further investigation. That will cost me even more – and will divert revenue that Los Angeles could be spending solving some of the issues it’s campaigning for. But I do want clarity, a bright line in the sand to tell public agencies that they can’t spend my money to persuade me how to vote.

Elected officials are welcome to use their own campaign money and their own campaign staff to endorse causes. But they shouldn’t be allowed to use public resources, including staff time and taxpayer money, to put a thumb on the scale of a fair and free election.

Rather then a rap on the knuckles and swiftly moving on, I hope the FPPC takes this opportunity to clarify what voter education really means. Only then will Los Angeles County and other public bodies be forced to allow their new taxes to stand or fail on their own.

Originally posted at Fox and Hounds.

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