The risk of election fraud has been a national topic of conversation, but while some people have been focused on mail-in ballots and voting technology, a different type of corruption has been flying under the radar: the use of public funds to campaign for tax increases.
The Free Speech clauses of the federal and state Constitutions prohibit the use of governmentally compelled monetary contributions (including taxes) to support or oppose political campaigns. In 1976, the California Supreme Court ruled, “The use of the public treasury to mount an election campaign which attempts to influence the resolution of issues which our Constitution leaves to the ‘free election’ of the people (see Const., art. II, § 2) … presents a serious threat to the integrity of the electoral process.” Stanson v. Mott (1976) 17 Cal.3d 206, 218.
Both the state and local governments sometimes stretch the law to its breaking point by claiming that their advocacy is simply “education.” They don’t always get away with it.
From January to March 2017, the County of Los Angeles spent almost $1 million in public funds on a multimedia campaign urging voters to support Measure H, a one-quarter percent sales tax increase to pay for homelessness services. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission as well as a lawsuit seeking to enforce the law that bars the public treasury from taking sides in an election.
As a result, the County of Los Angeles was fined $1.35 million, the largest fine ever imposed against any agency in California.
HJTA will be watching to make sure local governments don’t use public funds to campaign against a November 2024 ballot measure, the Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act, which includes important provisions to ensure that any tax increases are fully disclosed to voters and approved exactly as the state constitution requires, without loopholes or tricks.
California taxpayers are all too familiar with deceptive practices in initiative campaigns, either statewide or local proposals. A measure that claims to “protect taxpayers” or guarantees “strict accountability” is often a tax increase, or a bond measure that saddles voters with thirty years of debt payments. The campaign committees behind these anti-taxpayer measures frequently include the word “taxpayer” in their names, like “Taxpayers for Common Sense” or “Taxpayers for Traffic Relief.”
Many California voters are irritated by the frequently deceptive “ballot title and summary” for measures that appear on their ballots. At the state level, these are prepared by the California Attorney General.
One of the worst examples of ballot label deception occurred in 2017, after the California legislature passed a massive tax hike on gasoline, diesel fuel and vehicle registration. The backlash from voters was so intense that an initiative to repeal the tax hikes qualified for the 2018 ballot as Proposition 6.
Polling indicated that the gas tax increase was hated, and passage of Prop. 6 seemed almost certain. But the ballot label written by Attorney General Xavier Becerra was a gift to defenders of the tax. It ominously stated that Proposition 6 would “eliminate certain transportation funding.” This was blatantly deceptive for two reasons. First, it did not specify what funding was at issue – voters could easily conclude that all road funds would disappear – and second, there was no mention at all that the measure would repeal the previous year’s tax hikes.
Deceptive ballot labels may be challenged in court, but ordinary citizens rarely have the money to bring such lawsuits and, even when they do, the level of deference shown to the Attorney General by the courts is very high. In other words, it virtually takes outright lies to compel a court to intervene. Misleading omissions have not been enough.
This has been a problem for many years and has gotten so bad that transparency advocates introduced a constitutional amendment (ACA 7) in 2019 that would remove the Attorney General from the process. Instead, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) would assume the responsibility of writing the official ballot label, title and summary for all measures put before voters on initiative petitions and on the ballot.
Predictably, ACA 7 failed to make it out of the legislature, where it was deemed to be a threat to entrenched political interests.
That’s a problem. Elections controlled by entrenched political interests are inherently corrupt, even before the votes are counted.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.