A crackdown on misuse of taxpayer money?

As documented in this space on several occasions, local government officials throughout California have been thumbing their noses at a state law that prohibits them from using taxpayer funds for political campaigns.

Officials in cities, counties, school districts and special purpose districts routinely hire campaign management firms, often with multi-million-dollar fees, to manage every stage of their ballot measures seeking voter approval of new taxes or new bond issues (which require new taxes to service).

The consulting firms conduct polling of local voters and then draft the ballot measures to conform to what those polls indicate voters would find acceptable. The political pros then design campaigns for the measures, under the guise of “education,” to persuade voters to approve them.

Typically, the “education” campaigns are misleading, promising that the proceeds of the taxes and bonds will be used for popular facilities and services, such as police and fire protection or parks, while ignoring the underlying real reasons, such as to cover rapidly increasing employee pension and health care costs.

The consultants often boast of their high passage rates, and with good reason, because most of the carefully crafted and marketed measures do, in fact, win voter approval.

The practice is, as mentioned earlier, illegal. A specific state law prohibits it. But it continues unabated because local prosecutors, who sometimes share in the proceeds of the measures, have consistently refused to pursue cases against their fellow politicians.

Lately and belatedly, the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) has dived into the increasingly blatant misuse of taxpayer dollars, but it lacks the power to prosecute the miscreant officials. Rather, it has in some cases taken the indirect action of trying to compel the offending governments to file campaign donor reports.

Filing such reports would be tantamount to admitting that the law had been broken, so of course, local officials have dragged their feet on complying.

Local prosecutors appear to be adamant in turning a blind eye to this obvious law-breaking, so the FPPC is now asking the Legislature to give it the power to prosecute cases.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, a Democrat from Bell Gardens, has introduced Assembly Bill 1306, which would give the FPPC the power to bring civil and administrative actions against those who misuse public funds.

“The rules should apply to everyone,” said Garcia, who’s been an outspoken advocate of political reform. “I’m all for giving the FPPC more teeth to bite down on those who misuse taxpayer resources.  It’s quite convenient that the campaign laws enforceable by the FPPC didn’t include public officials or public entities within our own government entities. The FPPC noticed this gap in their enforcement ability and this bill now sends a clear message that California won’t tolerate public agencies, or elected officials, spending taxpayer dollars on campaign activities.” 

“This bill simply holds those in power to the same standard we hold those who are not,” Garcia added.  “Government shouldn’t get a pass just because it makes the rules. Fair is fair and we must hold individuals, and entities, accountable by empowering our oversight entities to dole out more than a fix-it ticket fine. No one is above the law, including our government.”

What happens to Garcia’s bill as it winds its way through the Capitol will be very instructive. Logically, legislators should be willing to put some teeth into the law they enacted, but logic doesn’t always prevail in politics.

If lawmakers continue to let their counterparts in local government off the hook, they should be ashamed of themselves.

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