The locusts come out at election time

The deadline for local governments to place tax hikes on the November ballot is rapidly approaching. This is why political consultants have descended like locusts on city councils, county boards of supervisors and school boards pitching their services. Their objective? Fool, er, convince, voters to approve even higher levels of taxation.

These consultants are nothing if not slick and very convincing. They also use taxpayer dollars to engage in so-called “informational” campaigns explaining to the public why their city, county or school needs more money, whether they do or not.

Here’s how it works. Consulting firms specializing in tax measures engage in aggressive advertising pitching their services directly to local governments or through associations such as the League of California Cities or the California School Boards Association. If they get a bite from a jurisdiction, they claim to be able to do a “feasibility” study to test voters’ receptiveness to a tax hike. But these surveys are often loaded with questions designed to elicit support for the desired outcome (e.g. Do you think education is important?).

Armed with “data” showing that tax increases could pass voter approval, the consultants then engage in “outreach” to organizations and interests that might benefit from tax hike increases, such as public sector unions and construction companies. The jurisdiction even begins to engage in direct mail campaigns that are designed to build good will with voters. These might be glossy fliers with photos of police or fire personnel.

The next step is the drafting of the tax hike measure, which invariably begins with “findings” of extreme necessity for additional money. The drafting  includes coordinating with the consultant’s legal team and government lawyers to provide one-sided ballot titles and summaries.

The sad part about all the activity described above is that it is all taxpayer funded. It is only when the actual political campaign begins that the consultants partner with the special interest groups for the “advocacy” part of the campaign. But even here, examples of local governments crossing the line into taxpayer-funded advocacy are too numerous to mention. Moreover, in most of these cases, the consultant hired to run the election campaign is the same firm that did the “informational” campaign on behalf of the city, county or school district.

​Taxpayer funded political campaigns are illegal. 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.

As we enter the 2022 election cycle, cities, counties and special districts will use public funds to pitch tax hikes.

The Modesto Bee has already reported that the city of Modesto is considering spending $115,000 for consulting services to test the viability of a tax increase.

Fortunately, prosecuting such violations of law was the very reason the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association created the new Public Integrity Project, which has already proved to be an additional enforcement tool against illegal expenditures of public funds and other violations of law that hurt taxpayers and voters.

Citizens who believe that their government entity is illegally spending public funds for election related activities can contact HJTA as well as the Fair Political Practices Commission. To find out if anybody’s pitching a local tax increase for your November ballot, check the website of your city council, county board of supervisors and school board throughout June and read the agenda of all upcoming meetings.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.