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Government Unleashes New Tool Against Taxpayers
Electioneering with your tax money...
[by Jon Coupal] 9/8/05

By now, taxpayers have grown accustomed to having their government work against them. First, with a tax structure that is inequitable, complex and burdensome. Second, with expenditure policies that are frequently ineffective, wasteful and counterproductive to the public good.

Less common, but still growing in frequency, is government use of taxpayer funds in the political process in ways that are contrary to taxpayers' best interests. More than troubling, this presents a direct threat to democracy. Indeed, in a 1976 case called Stanson v. Mott, the California Supreme Court recognized that "a fundamental precept of this nation's democratic electoral process is that the government may not 'take sides' in election contests or bestow an unfair advantage on one of several competing factions. A principal danger feared by our country's founders lay in the possibility that the holders of governmental authority would use official power improperly to perpetuate themselves, or their allies, in office."

Jon Coupal

Jon Coupal is an attorney and president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association -- California's largest taxpayer organization with offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento. [go to website] [go to Coupal index]

Notwithstanding the legal and moral prohibitions against government electioneering, politicians and bureaucrats find ways to pervert the political process with impunity. For example, while prohibited from spending money for political advocacy, public bodies are permitted to "educate" voters. This distinction between "advocacy" and "informational" activity is one that exists only in theory. Under the guise of the latter, cities, counties and special districts will mail out glossy fliers on a proposed tax increase and, without ever saying "vote yes," either communicate all the good things that will happen if the tax measure passes or all the horrible things that will transpire if it fails. The implicit message is clear: "Listen, you greedy taxpayers, we need this tax/bond/assessment/fee because it is for the children/public safety/clean water, etc." You get the idea.

Even when it comes to direct electioneering, government has found a major loophole. While most California cities will not (usually) directly contribute money to political campaigns in favor of higher taxes, they pay millions of dollars in "membership" dues to government associations such as the League of California Cities. The League, in turn, has spent millions to affect the outcome of statewide ballot measures including spending $50,000 to defeat Proposition 218, the Right to Vote on Taxes Act.

The League is quick to point out that its political "slush fund" is not comprised of member city dues but, rather, other revenue such as advertising in their publications. But the League misses the point. The League is financed almost exclusively by member city dues and any ancillary income it receives should be used to reduce those dues to save taxpayer dollars. Without taxpayer dollars, the League would not exist. In short, it should not be the business of government associations to finance political campaigns.

Finally, we get to the latest disturbing trend. As part of the election process on proposed tax increases, bonds, or other public finance issues appearing on the ballot, taxpayer activists are usually called upon or compelled to write ballot arguments. These arguments are frequently the only information presented to the voters that is not filtered through government because, especially at the local level, ordinary citizens do not have the financial resources to conduct expensive political campaigns.

As a rule, local activists try to be objective in cutting through the glitz and obfuscation advanced by the pro-taxers in government. Nonetheless, if there is something that the government entity finds objectionable, it is now becoming more frequent to have the activists served with a subpoena and ordered to appear in court on the content of those arguments.

Often, the government entity will hire high-priced outside counsel (again at taxpayer expense) to intimidate local citizens who dare participate in the political process by submitting a ballot argument against a proposed tax or bond. This goes way beyond a legitimate attempt to correct misstatements. Too frequently, government will overreach and attempt to have the court strike statements that are factually true but that, because of their truthfulness, are damaging to the goal of raising taxes.

But taxpayers can strike back. Just last week a hearing was conducted in Calaveras County on a taxpayer supported local initiative that simply sought further voter review of a special tax in subsequent years. The Ebbets Pass Fire Protection District hired expensive San Francisco lawyers to strike the entire initiative from the ballot. (This went way beyond just the arguments). The District thought it could intimidate the two local taxpayer activists by filing a "writ of mandate" with an extremely short time to respond.

But attorneys with Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association exposed this weak attempt at intimidation by filing a response on behalf of the activists and representing them in the courtroom. It took the judge less than a couple of hours to render his opinion: Proposition 218 guarantees the People the right to vote on taxes. The attempt "to prevent the electors from voting on the challenged initiative is denied."

Taxpayers need to be aware that even good faith efforts to participate in the political process might attract government vindictiveness and intimidation. But we won't give up. If we don't participate, we discard our freedoms. CRO

Jon Coupal is an attorney and President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

copyright 2005 Howard Jarvis Taxpayers association



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