Desperate times and desperate measures

In politics, strange things happen in the week preceding an election. It is no different with Measure EE, the controversial property tax hike proposed by the Los Angeles Unified School District. Although predicting the outcome of any election is dangerous it is clear that Measure EE is in trouble. In fact, its biggest problem might not even be the two-thirds vote threshold required for its approval. What is more disturbing for the district is the extent to which LAUSD has suffered multiple self-inflicted wounds in the conduct of its campaign.

Prior to this week, the district already committed several faults, starting with the screw-up on the language placed before the voters. That language doesn’t match what the LAUSD board approved in the official resolution. Not surprisingly, that problem resulted in a lawsuit.

More recently, the district distributed a mail piece advertising how seniors can apply for an exemption to the tax. No one believes for a second that the letter was anything other than a campaign piece because it was distributed to residents using the voter file rather than data from the assessor.

The bigger problem for the district is that the application for the exemption is itself very intimidating and seniors are justifiably suspicious of the district’s intentions. The application demands sensitive information such as a photocopy of the applicant’s driver’s license or passport. It also requires that the homeowner prove they are the primary resident by providing a copy of their Social Security check, insurance policy or utility bill and a copy of their current property tax bill. To top it all off, the application notes that the district may require that the application be submitted in person.

All these unforced errors by LAUSD in support of its $500 million per year tax hike have forced proponents to realize that they may be on a path to defeat. They have doubled down on questionable conduct in a desperate attempt to save Measure EE. The hard-sell pressure tactics bordering on threats from the district last week is, like the ill-fated “senior exemption” letter, bound to backfire. Reports from district personnel themselves have confirmed the heavy-handed tactics. Central to the improper activity by LAUSD is the fact that it is illegal under both state and federal law to use public resources for political advocacy.  But here, the list of improper activities is long. Everything from huge Measure EE banners festooning school grounds, cajoling school personnel to spend district time on the EE campaign, raffles set up by the district, sending mail to targeted voters and using school children as conduits for both campaign material and voter data crosses the line and certainly requires an investigation by authorities.

Toward that end, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association took several actions last week in response to LAUSD’s political campaigning. In addition to asking L.A. County District Attorney, Jackie Lacey, to investigate the activity, HJTA has submitted a detailed records request seeking all information related to illegal activity. Finally, HJTA has submitted a request to the California Fair Political Practices Commission asking that it open an investigation into LAUSD’s activities. HJTA has committed to pursuing the issue of LAUSD’s improper spending of taxpayer funds even if the measure is defeated next week.

Given all this Laurel and Hardy behavior, perhaps the district will come to the realization that it should focus on educating children rather than attempting to run a sophisticated political operation. When it comes to shooting oneself in the foot, the district has demonstrated perfect marksmanship.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.