This column has, over the last several years, exposed multiple examples of government entities using taxpayer dollars for political advocacy, a practice that is clearly illegal under both state and federal law. 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 “Such contributions are a form of speech, and compelled speech offends the First Amendment.” Smith v. U.C. Regents (1993) 4 Cal.4th 843, 852.
Moreover, “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.
While taxpayer organizations have been successful in several lawsuits involving these illegal expenditures, that hasn’t stopped either the state or local governments from continuing to push the envelope into political advocacy. However, there is a secondary legal issue that may actually prove to be more effective when government engages in political advocacy. Beyond the First Amendment implications, California has a strict regimen of campaign finance laws and regulations. These laws both limit a wide range of political contributions and impose strict reporting requirements. Thus, when government agencies engage in illegal political activity under First Amendment grounds, unless they have reported the costs of the activities to the FPPC as campaign contributions, they have violated separate campaign finance laws as well.
In March 2017, Los Angeles County placed Measure H, a sales tax for homeless programs, on the ballot. Whatever one may think of the need for higher taxes — for homeless programs or any other purpose — the county’s use of nearly a million dollars of public funds for the political campaign unquestionably crossed the line into political advocacy.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed a complaint with the FPPC shortly after Measure H passed — by a slender margin — and this past week the FPPC finally took action. Specifically, the FPPC found probable cause to charge L.A. County, as well as the individual members of the Board of Supervisors, with 15 counts of campaign finance violations. Not only is the “probable cause” finding by the FPPC welcomed by taxpayer advocates, the timing is very propitious. California is just weeks away from the midterm elections and, regrettably, local governments up and down California are illegally using taxpayer funds for political advocacy and failing to report the same as political contributions. Los Angeles County itself is currently running campaign ads, paid for by the taxpayers, for Measure W, a new parcel tax to pay for stormwater projects.
Taxpayers are hopeful that the findings by the FPPC will serve as a huge shot across the bow to all government entities in California not to abuse taxpayers by using public funds for political activity.
In the meantime, using additional FPPC complaints as well as lawsuits can go a long way in stopping this particularly perverse use of taxpayer dollars.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.