By Dan Walters, CALmatters | Government Code Section 8314 is unambiguous, declaring, “It is unlawful for any elected state or local officer, including any state or local appointee, employee, or consultant, to use or permit others to use public resources for a campaign activity, or personal or other purposes which are not authorized by law.”
The law embraces an obvious principle. It would be unfair and undemocratic were officials to use taxpayers’ money for self-serving political campaigns.
Increasingly, however, California officials are doing exactly that, with little fear of being slapped down by prosecutors or the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
It’s now common for local officials seeking tax increases or bond issues from voters to hire campaign consultants on the fiction that they will provide unbiased information to the voting public.
These consultants conduct polling to determine which angles of proposals are most attractive to voters, write the measures to stress those popular features and then produce literature and ads to trumpet those selling points.
One of the syndrome’s more blatant examples occurred last year when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors proposed a half-cent sales-tax increase for services to the homeless.
The county gave TBWB Strategies, a San Francisco consulting firm, a $1 million contract to work on the tax measure.
The company isn’t shy about its mission, boasting on its website that “TBWB helps you package and pass a ballot measure to meet your needs by efficiently getting your message out to persuade voters and mobilize your base of support.”
Its campaign for the county included television and radio spots that touted the benefits of the tax. They apparently worked, because the measure passed.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association complained to the FPPC that, by another law, the county should have filed a campaign contribution report, but the FPPC refused to act. Last month, the organization filed a lawsuit to challenge the TBWB contract’s legality.
Los Angeles County apparently sees the homeless tax as a template. Supervisors have since voted to place a “parcel tax” on the November ballot of 2.5 cents per square foot of “improvements that cannot be permeated by rainwater,” such as driveways, with the estimated $300 million in annual revenue going to improve water services.
They also approved an additional $2 million for a consultant to supply “public outreach and education” about the new tax. But the California Taxpayers Association reported that an “educational video aired during the (supervisors’) meeting touted the measure as one that would result in ‘better quality of life for everyone in L.A.,’ and ended with the statement: ‘Now let’s do this, before the opportunity dries up.’ ”
Not only is slanted “information” now a regular feature of local tax and bond campaigns, but state government is headed down the same slippery slope.
Caltrans signs at highway construction projects tout financing by Senate Bill 1, the $5.2 billion a year fee and gas-tax measure that the Legislature approved last year but now faces possible repeal via a November ballot measure.
State Sen. Ling Ling Chang, a Republican from Diamond Bar who won her seat in the recall of Democratic Sen. Josh Newman over his vote for SB 1, is complaining to Caltrans that with repeal pending, the signs are improper. “No sign is needed to educate the public,” she said in a letter to the agency.
All of the taxes involved, including the gas tax, may be justifiable on their own merits. But using taxpayer money to persuade voters to endorse them is just plain wrong and violates the spirit, and perhaps the letter, of Section 8314.
Dan Walters is an opinion columnist for CALmatters where this column originally appeared. CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.