In 1996 the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association ran a successful statewide campaign winning passage of Proposition 218 the Right to Vote on Taxes Act. Prop 218 gave California homeowners the right to approve or reject a host of property related fees and taxes.
Not wanting to cede political power to the unwashed masses local government officials and their political allies fought hard against Prop 218. But one tactic caught us by surprise — the use of seemingly public funds by municipal “associations” such as the League of California Cities (League).
In the weeks before the 1996 election we noticed in the official Secretary of State campaign finance reports that the League had contributed $50000 to oppose Prop 218. This was odd as government entities are strictly prohibited from using public resources for political advocacy and the League receives most of its revenue in “dues” from taxpayer funded local governments.
Why is there a prohibition against government involvement in election contests? Because as recognized by the California Supreme Court in Smith v. U.C. Regents 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 since "[s]uch contributions are a form of speech and compelled speech offends the First Amendment."
Moreover the California Supreme Court in the Stanson case found that 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 . . . presents a serious threat to the integrity of the electoral process."
After the $50000 contribution become public the League merely refiled its official campaign report removing the bare reference to “League of Cities” and replaced it with “League of Cities non-public Funds Account.” The League then argued that it had “segregated” its public funds from its “non-public funds.”
While $50000 to the average citizen is a lot of money it is chump change in California politics and it pales in comparison to what the League of Cities and other government associations have spent on contested election issues since that time. The most galling of all was the League’s full scale assault on Proposition 98 (2008) seeking to restore property rights in California. In reaction to the infamous Kelo decision from the U.S. Supreme Court California property rights activists qualified an initiative to ensure that private property could not be taken by eminent domain for the purpose of handing it over to another private interest.
That property rights campaign was lost due in no small part to the fact that the League spent millions of dollars from its “non-public funds” account to assure the defeat.
The League defends this practice by first arguing that the League itself is not a public entity. That may be true but the League would not exist but for the membership dues paid by local governments which themselves are supported by public dollars. This renders the nature of the League as a fundamentally different sort of organization from other trade associations business groups or labor unions.
Adding insult to injury the League refuses to reveal the source of these millions of dollars for the specific purpose of supporting or opposing ballot measures. So those millions spent against property rights? We still don’t know where they came from.
Anyone who doubts the political clout of the municipal “industry” should consider what happened last week to a modest effort by Senator Jerry Hill to correct this undue influence on the electoral process. His bill Senate Bill 594 would have clamped down on the most abusive of these practices. But after intense lobbying by local government interests the proposal has been rendered substantially weaker.
The lesson here is that local governments working through their lobbying associations are as powerful a special interest as any corporation or labor union. The only difference is they’re the government. And that means they have power over us that no other interest group does.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.