Local Governments Continue Spending Tax Dollars on Political Campaigns

David Kline
Vice President of Communications and Research, California Taxpayers Association

When Los Angeles County supervisors voted last month to place a parcel tax on the November ballot, they also approved adding $2 million to a contract for “public outreach and education,” bringing the county’s total outreach spending to $11.2 million. Savvy observers already knew that “outreach and education” is code for thinly disguised campaign materials designed to convince voters to support the tax, but the Board of Supervisors drove the point home by showing an “educational” video that heaped praise on the tax and ended with the statement: “Now let’s do this, before the opportunity dries up.”

Nowhere in the video was there a discussion of how the parcel tax (2.5 cents per square foot of improvements that can’t be permeated by rainwater) would increase the cost of living in Los Angeles, or how taking $300 million per year out of the hands of residents would negatively impact the economy.

Of course, the video is just the start. With a multimillion-dollar budget, just think of the additional advertising the county will be able to produce. While the county is spending taxpayers’ money on its political campaign, opponents will have to spend their own money to truly educate voters about the flawed tax measure.

Los Angeles County is no stranger to spending taxpayers’ money on political campaigns, despite it being against the law. The county is being sued for spending almost $1 million to promote Measure H, a sales tax hike on last year’s ballot. County-funded television and radio ads touted the measure as a vital way to raise money to fight homelessness, and ended with the line: “Measure H, Real Help, Lasting Change, Vote March 7.”

The ads didn’t specifically say “vote yes on Measure H,” but the message was crystal clear. After all, the red “Make America Great Again” hats and blue “I’m With Her” signs didn’t have to say “vote for Trump” or “vote for Clinton” to get their point across.

The abuse of tax dollars is by no means exclusive to Los Angeles. Here is what the official taxpayer-funded Mountain View website says about two measures on the November ballot: “City leaders want to maintain and enhance the quality of life for all who live, visit and conduct business in Mountain View. Continuing our long tradition of forward-thinking and thorough planning, the Mountain View City

Council will bring two revenue ballot measures to the voters this November 2018. The first is an update to the existing business license tax, expected to generate around $6 million annually for the general fund to be used primarily for transportation improvements, which benefit both residents and businesses. The second measure is a general purpose cannabis tax of up to nine percent on gross receipts expected to generate approximately $1 million annually.”

A few months ago, the Oakland Public Library used the public purse to urge voters to approve a parcel tax to raise revenue for the library. Shortly before the June election, the library produced a full-color flier with a photo of young children reading, a photo of gray-haired seniors reading, and a photo of people of various ages and ethnicities holding babies (no, the babies weren’t reading). The flier stated that, “Oakland Public Libraries are an important community resource,” and described the tax measure in glowing terms. It concluded: “Contact OPL or your local librarian for more information about this important initiative.”

The Oakland tax proponents were hopeful that not many people would vote against an “important initiative,” and they got their wish. The tax was approved.

The spending on websites, videos, fliers, newsletters and on-the-clock presentations by local government employees is coupled with skewed ballot questions written by the very people who put the measures on the ballot.  The ballot language for Measure E, on the November ballot in Folsom, is typical. It begins with an Orwellian title (the “Folsom Community Enhancement and Investment Measure”) and ends with a statement that all the funds would remain in Folsom –a focus-group-approved statement used by local governments throughout the state.

On the plus side, the Folsom ballot question actually states the rate and duration of the tax. This information often is left out or buried, even by local governments that profess to be interested in “educating” voters.

Political columnist Dan Walters of CALmatters noted in an August 6 piece: “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.’ … 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 time for prosecutors and the state’s campaign watchdog to stand up for taxpayers, and hold local government officials accountable. The media’s increasing interest in the issue could be the key to finally making this happen.

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