Last Thursday, the Fair Political Practices Commission imposed one of the largest fines ever against Los Angeles County for using taxpayer funds for political ads touting Measure H, a sales tax increase on the ballot in 2017.
The action by the FPPC was precipitated by a complaint filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. The $1.3 million fine imposed by the FPPC won’t undo the 2017 election, but it may provide a much-needed deterrent against future illegal behavior. As we head into the November election, local governments up and down California are tempted to use taxpayer funds for political advocacy.
This fine by the FPPC will serve as a huge shot across the bow to government entities in California that they must obey all state laws and regulations relating to both reporting campaign expenditures as well as providing disclosures on campaign advertising.
When it comes to government entities using public money for campaigning, there are two distinct but related issues.
First, as noted above, the FPPC has jurisdiction over campaign financing reporting as well as disclosure requirements for political advertising. The latter is why we hear at the end of radio ads during election season disclosures such as “Ad paid for by Citizens to Protect Kittens with Major Funding from Joe Doe and Acme Corporation.” Campaign finance laws are intended to provide voters with information about who is providing money for various political positions or supporting or opposing candidates.
Second is the threshold issue of whether government entities should be engaging in electioneering at all. As noted by the California Supreme Court, “Such contributions are a form of speech, and compelled speech offends the First Amendment.”
Many assume, wrongly, that the FPPC already has jurisdiction in this area. But current law does not permit the commission’s enforcement division to investigate and bring legal action against public agencies and officials for spending taxpayer funds on campaigns. Currently the commission is limited to requiring disclosure of campaign spending and the timely reporting of those expenditures.
Last year, HJTA sponsored Assembly Bill 1306, which would have expanded the FPPC’s jurisdiction to enforce these “Stanson” claims. Proving that this is a non-partisan issue, HJTA teamed up with progressive Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, to author the legislation. Regrettably, local government interests succeeded in killing the bill.
As long as the FPPC’s jurisdiction is limited to campaign finance and disclosure issues, it is up to other interests to prosecute constitutional claims based on the First Amendment. In a perfect world, this would be done by California’s Attorney General and local district attorneys. But such cases are a low priority for these officials.
For that reason, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has created a new Public Integrity Project which will be run by HJTA’s affiliated 501(c)(3) organization, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation. The project will be funded from HJTA’s half of the fine imposed by the FPPC to which HJTA is entitled for filing the original complaint against the county. The creation of HJTF’s Public Integrity Project will provide an additional enforcement tool against illegal expenditures of public funds and other violations of law that hurt taxpayers and voters.
State and local government elected officials are now on notice that any use of taxpayer dollars for electioneering will bring substantial financial fines and even personal liability on the part of officials who authorize such illegal expenditures.
Originally published in the Orange County Register