A crackdown on misusing public funds for campaigns?

When Yuba County’s Board of Supervisors asked its voters to hike sales taxes last year, it wasn’t alone.

Hundreds of California’s local governments, cities and counties primarily, were doing so, promising voters that the new revenues would be used to enhance popular services, such as parks, police and fire protection.

Yuba officials also were not alone in failing to mention that much of the new revenue would be used to pay fast-rising costs of pensions for their employees. And, emulating what was happening elsewhere, county officialdom urged passage of the measure under the guise of “education,” with those opposed to the new tax alleging that taxpayer funds were used for the campaign.

 After Measure K was approved by a narrow margin, the opponents complained about what they saw as misuse of public funds to the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC).

That was not unusual, either. A recent FPPC staff report said that since 2015, when local tax measures began proliferating, the agency has received 34 complaints about taxpayer funds being used for campaigns to raise taxes.

In addition, sponsors of a 2018 ballot measure to overturn California’s new gas taxes have complained that officials used tax money to oppose it. Voters rejected the measure, keeping the new taxes on the books.

State law very clearly and specifically makes misuse of taxpayer funds for political purposes illegal, but the FPPC has no power to enforce the law. That’s up to local prosecutors and the state Department of Justice, but as the FPPC report concluded, “The Enforcement Division is not aware of any actions brought by state or local prosecutors related to those cases.”

In other words, using public funds may be illegal, but those who do it have virtually no chance of being prosecuted.

All of that is frustrating to both those who file complaints with the FPPC and members of the commission, especially since Alice Germond became its chairwoman. “There has been plenty of it, but they choose not to bring charges,” FPPC member Brian Hatch said of county prosecutors when the commission took up the issue last month.

Under Germond, the commission has taken a roundabout path toward cracking down on the misuse of public funds. It has been investigating agencies, including Yuba County, for potential violations of the law it can enforce, which requires those making political contributions to file reports with the FPPC.

The agency has already cited the Bay Area Rapid Transit District for violating that law, sending a warning to other agencies that surreptitiously use public funds for political purposes. It’s also moved against Los Angeles County for not reporting public funds it used to campaign for a tax measure, sparking a lawsuit by the California State Association of Counties to challenge the FPPC’s authority.

Potentially, the FPPC crackdown puts agencies in a legal vise.

If they insist that they aren’t misusing the funds, they risk being fined by the FPPC. But if they file campaign contribution reports, they will be admitting to the misuse and putting themselves in jeopardy of being prosecuted.

However, the FPPC isn’t stopping there.

“We want the opportunity to take action when public money is misused,” Germond said. “Californians expect our tax dollars to be used appropriately and when that is not the case, I want to be able to send a strong message on behalf of our citizens. And I want to set a clear precedent that such behavior is unacceptable.”

Last month, by a 4-0 vote, it approved a request to the Legislature to amend state law and allow the FPPC to prosecute misuse cases that local and state prosecutors are shunning.

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