In summary

Local California officials routinely and illegally misuse taxpayer funds for political campaigns and only one agency tries to stop it.

California voters are not only voting on presidential, congressional, legislative and local government offices and a dozen statewide ballot measures but deciding the fate of 234 local tax and bond measures.

The California Taxpayers Association estimates that if passed, the local tax measures would raise about $1.5 billion a year in new revenues. The proposed bond issues, mostly for schools, total nearly $15 billion and their passage would automatically trigger increases in property taxes to repay lenders.

These are hefty financial stakes and the local officials that placed measures on the ballot have reason to worry about their passage. Voters rejected 62% of the 239 local measures on the March 3 primary ballot — and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic struck home, the state’s economy plummeted and more than two million jobs were erased.

The recession that’s still raging is a two-edged sword for local government and school officials. It has cut their tax revenues sharply and also tends to make voters even more leery about paying higher taxes.

City council members, county supervisors and school trustees are tempted, in their zeal to persuade voters to vote for new taxes and bonds, to violate a state law prohibiting them from using taxpayer funds for campaign purposes.

Government Code Section 54964 forthrightly declares, “An officer, employee, or consultant of a local agency may not expend or authorize the expenditure of any of the funds of the local agency to support or oppose the approval or rejection of a ballot measure, or the election or defeat of a candidate, by the voters.”

In fact, such violations have become commonplace in recent years. Under the guise of providing “information,” local officials routinely hire campaign management firms to design advertisements, mailers and other material aimed at persuading voters to pass the proposed taxes and bonds.

They have done so because they know that state and local prosecutors just as routinely refuse to prosecute violations of Section 54964 by their fellow officeholders.

The only investigative agency to interest itself in such violations is the California Fair Political Practices Commission and while the FPPC lacks authority to enforce Section 54964, it can treat agencies that step over the line dividing information from advocacy as campaign contributors.

Recently, for example, the FPPC targeted the County of Los Angeles, which in 2017 spent a million dollars for an ill-disguised, but successful, campaign to pass Measure H, a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax. The campaign included broadcast commercials in English and Spanish that used the slogan “Real Help. Lasting Change.”

County officials, without admitting liability, agreed to pay the FPPC a $1.35 million penalty for failing to report their spending as a campaign contribution. However, that pales in comparison to the estimated $355 million a year that Measure H’s passage will generate.

Last week, the FPPC invited the public to use its “AdWATCH” program to monitor the materials local officials are using to promote their tax and bond measures and upload questionable items to the agency for examination and perhaps investigation.

“The public can play a vital role in helping our enforcement division in making sure campaigns and public agencies are following the rules and ensuring a level playing field,” FPPC Chair Richard C. Miadich said in a statement.

The FPPC’s efforts are welcome, despite being an indirect and relatively weak way of discouraging improper use of taxpayer funds for campaigns, but it’s likely to be the only way as long as prosecutors refuse to enforce the law.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...