California officials are straddling a fine legal line as they use public funds to persuade voters to approve billions of dollars in taxes, fees and bonds.
There is “a fine line public agencies, officials and employees walk between legally disseminating information and illegally advocating for or against a ballot measure or candidate” under California law.
That’s the opening of an article in publicceo.com, a website devoted to governmental management, written by two lawyers well-versed in the subject.
The article, essentially a warning, is timely because, throughout California, officials are at least straddling that line and may be crossing it as they attempt to persuade voters to support billions of dollars in bonds, taxes and fees.
A big example is Proposition 6, which would repeal last year’s $5-plus billion package of gas taxes and automotive fees.
Anti-tax groups that placed Proposition 6 on the ballot complain that the state Department of Transportation has been colluding with other opponents of the repeal and last week, those complaints were bolstered by the Associated Press.
The AP reported that official emails it acquired reveal that “the state transportation agency coordinated frequently with the public affairs firm working to block the repeal on behalf of unions, construction companies and local government groups.”
The coordination, the AP said, included, “efforts to promote legislation to raise the tax to fund road and bridge repairs (and) after Gov. Jerry Brown signed it, the agency and the firm continued planning events and coordinating social media posts as opponents gathered signatures for repeal.”
Caltrans denied to the AP that it stepped over the line, saying that it was just trying to educate the public and “that they ramped down coordination when the firm took an official campaign role.” Notwithstanding those denials, it’s evident that Caltrans has been working hand-in-glove with opponents of Proposition 6.
Sadly, the Caltrans-Proposition 6 situation is not the only example. But maybe the Fair Political Practices Commission will do something about it.
Two years ago, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors proposed a half-cent sales tax increase for services to the homeless and gave TBWB Strategies, a San Francisco consulting firm, a $1 million contract to work on the tax measure.
TBWB’s campaign, including television and radio spots that touted the benefits of Proposition H, helped it win passage. However, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association complained to the FPPC and filed a lawsuit challenging the campaign’s legality.
Last month, an FPPC hearing officer found probable cause for a 15-count formal accusation that the county supervisors contributed to the Proposition H campaign without filing a campaign donor report and following other campaign laws.
Were the allegation to be upheld and supervisors compelled to file such a report, they would be virtually conceding that they had used public funds for political purposes, which is flatly illegal.
Meanwhile, the same supervisors have also placed a “parcel tax” on the November ballot. If approved, it would charge property owners 2.5 cents per square foot of “improvements that cannot be permeated by rainwater,” such as buildings and driveways, and spend the estimated $300 million in annual revenue on projects to improve water services.
They also set aside $2 million for a consultant to supply “public outreach and education” about the proposed new tax – thus risking another FPPC investigation.
The Los Angeles tax measure is one of hundreds of local tax proposals facing voters this year, many of which also are being promoted by “consultants” such as TBWB under lucrative contracts supposedly for information but in reality to influence voters.
It’s high time the FPPC, local prosecutors and/or Attorney General Xavier Becerra stopped this undemocratic practice before it becomes ingrained.