Let’s give the FPPC the power to fight illegal spending

By Jon Coupal and Cristina Garcia

In recent years, taxpayers throughout California have registered numerous complaints about government entities using taxpayer dollars for political advocacy, a practice that is illegal under both state and federal law. Because progress in stopping these violations has been slow, taxpayers will be pleased to hear that the Fair Political Practices Commission sent a request to the California Legislature that it “consider legislation amending the Political Reform Act to authorize the Commission to bring administrative and civil actions against public agencies and public officials for spending public funds on campaign activity.”

Taking up that challenge is Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens — co-author of this column — who has introduced Assembly Bill 1306, which is in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Taxpayers hope that this commonsense, non-partisan proposal becomes law.

Here’s the background. 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 because, as noted in Smith v. UC Regents, “Such contributions are a form of speech, and compelled speech offends the First Amendment.”

Moreover, as determined in Stanson v. Mott, “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 … presents a serious threat to the integrity of the electoral process.”

While taxpayer organizations have been successful in several lawsuits challenging these illegal expenditures, they haven’t fully deterred lawbreaking by the state or local governments, for two separate reasons.

First, there are so many of these violations that taxpayer advocates are already engaging in endless whack-a-mole, filing dozens of lawsuits every election cycle.  Second, government entities have a huge incentive to continue to violate the law.  Because the FPPC’s current jurisdiction is limited to disclosure and reporting violations, the fines tend to be extremely modest compared to what the entities get in return. In other words, the minimal fines incentivize illegal activity because the return on investment is frequently in the millions, if not billions, of dollars. And because the fines themselves are paid with taxpayer dollars, there are rarely any real-world consequences imposed on public officials who misappropriate public funds for political advocacy. Empowering the FPPC to bring administrative and civil actions for Stanson violations would be the equivalent of the cavalry riding in to save the day.

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’s jurisdiction is limited to requiring disclosure of campaign spending and the timely reporting of those expenditures.

The authors of this column come from different locations on the political spectrum, but on this we are in wholehearted agreement. We believe the rules should apply to everyone, including public sector actors who now play fast and loose with election law in political campaigns. By empowering the FPPC with a valuable new enforcement tool, AB1306 would send a clear message that California won’t tolerate public agencies or official spending taxpayer dollars on campaign activities.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and Cristina Garcia represents the 58th Assembly District.