In August, the Fair Political Practices Commission imposed one of the largest fines in its history against Los Angeles County for using taxpayer funds to advocate for a ballot measure it had placed on the ballot.
Measure H was a massive sales tax increase, ostensibly for homeless programs. That same illegal behavior resulted in a lawsuit by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
The $1.3 million fine imposed by the FPPC against a local government entity for campaign finance disclosure and reporting violations sent shockwaves throughout the local government community which had grown accustomed to sending out campaign mailers thinly disguised as “informational” material.
Over the last three decades, these “informational” campaigns looked more and more like typical political advertising.
As much as the million-dollar fine imposed by the FPPC against L.A. County served as a much-needed deterrent against future illegal behavior, some local governments apparently didn’t get the memo.
For example, the city of Lynwood — a poster child for local government corruption — is running a taxpayer-funded campaign in favor of a hospital tax. The city’s mailers and videos clearly constitute political advocacy. Apparently, Lynwood’s elected leaders believe they can escape consequences for their illegal behavior.
When public entities spend taxpayer dollars for campaigning, there are two distinct but related issues. First, the FPPC has jurisdiction over campaign finance reporting as well as disclosure requirements for political advertising.
Beyond the issue of campaign finance disclosure is the question of whether government entities should be engaging in electioneering at all. 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.
While the FPPC does not have jurisdiction to challenge constitutional issues, non-governmental interests, including private individuals and public interest groups, do. In the wake of the judgement against Los Angeles County, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association created its new Public Integrity Project to work with the FPPC for the specific purpose of pursuing legal remedies against errant government behavior.
Moreover, the FPPC itself has expanded a program to assist the public in identifying election-related communications made by public entities. Under FPPC’s AdWatch program anyone can upload a picture of a campaign sign or video or an election-related communication by a public entity on the FPPC AdWatch page on the FPPC website. The site provides a link to upload pictures, signs, or videos.
Expanding on the legal requirements imposed on public entities, FPPC Enforcement Chief Galena West bluntly stated that, “If it’s political advertising, it has to have proper disclosure on it, no matter the source. We rely on the public to help us make sure the correct information is out there and that campaigns and the various public entities follow the law.”
If any member of the public believes that their city, county or special district has engaged in political advocacy at taxpayer expense, they should go to the FPPC website at www.fppc.ca.gov. In addition to informing the FPPC, citizens should also consider informing the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association firstname.lastname@example.org. HJTA has the capacity to bring legal challenges against government entities based on constitutional violations as well as statutory violations that may be beyond the jurisdiction of the FPPC.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.