SACRAMENTO — Police sirens wail as a scruffy teenager, clutching a bag, runs frantically through the streets. Entering a schoolyard, he reaches into the bag. Out comes ... a graduation gown, which he dons to receive a diploma.
The scene is from a television ad, paid for with tax money and made by consultants close to Hollywood producer Rob Reiner. It aired across California this winter, touting the benefits of preschool. "When kids go," the narrator says, "we all benefit."
The release of the ad, and two others, by a state commission Reiner heads coincided with his launch of a ballot initiative that would tax the rich to fund preschool for all California 4-year-olds.
Although Reiner did not directly approve the spots, their timing and substance highlight ties between the public commission and his private political campaigns and raise questions about whether the state-funded commercials were used to boost the initiative's prospects.
State law generally prohibits the use of public funds for campaign activities. Reiner's campaign attorney said the ads were legal and not political.
Reiner heads the First 5 California Children and Families Commission, a panel of seven members appointed by the governor and legislative leaders. It was created by an initiative Reiner sponsored in 1998 to promote early childhood development.
The measure, which raised cigarette taxes by 50 cents per pack, has generated $4 billion so far, much of it used for childhood healthcare, preschool and anti-tobacco efforts. Under Reiner's leadership, the commission has:
* Spent $23 million for the "Preschool for All" ads, which ran from November to mid-January, making it one of the largest state-funded advertising campaigns ever in California. In January, Reiner's new initiative, also called "Preschool for All," qualified for the June ballot as Proposition 82.
* Given $230 million in advertising and public relations contracts -- including the preschool ad blitz -- to firms that helped Reiner create the First 5 commission. As companies competed for the business, Reiner wrote a letter recommending one firm, which won.
* Paid $206,000 of the tax money to three political consultants, though they had no contract. One of them -- Benjamin Austin, a former Los Angeles deputy mayor -- said they helped coordinate the government activities of Reiner, the First 5 commission and the media consultants. Austin and the others subsequently joined the Proposition 82 effort, with Austin as campaign manager.
The contracts for the ads and the public relations work were awarded legally. But given the winning companies' relationship with Reiner, "there is a question of ... who really has a chance of getting a contract," said Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution fellow and former Pete Wilson administration official. "Insider connections are rewarded."
The twinning of First 5's ads and Reiner's initiative campaign troubles state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles).
"Taxpayer dollars should not be used to sway election results," she said. "Do that with campaign money."
Reiner campaign attorney James Harrison said the ads were legal.
In particular, he cited a court ruling in late December, which stems from a Salinas ballot measure and is being appealed, saying government can use tax money for campaigns as long as it doesn't expressly urge people to vote for or against an issue or candidate.
"The ads were legal and entirely proper," Harrison said.
Reiner, who noted that government staffers -- not First 5 commissioners -- chose the recipients of the ad contract, said the commercials were not related to the Preschool for All ballot initiative. Rather, he said, he concluded that the timing for such a measure was right, there was voter support and universal preschool would help California's children.
"I want to do things right for kids," Reiner said in an interview at a location he chose: a preschool funded by First 5 in South Los Angeles. "I want help to fix the school system."
Reiner, 58, gained fame for his role in the 1970s TV series "All in the Family." He since has produced, directed or acted in dozens of movies, including "Rumor Has It," "A Few Good Men" and "This Is Spinal Tap." For more than a decade, his political cause has been childhood development, though he and others say he has no personal financial stake in it.
To finance his vision, Reiner sponsored Proposition 10, which created First 5. The proposition gives counties 80% of the tobacco tax proceeds. Reiner's panel gets the other 20% -- $800 million since the commission's creation in 1999.
Written to his specifications, the law dictates that 6% of the tax revenue be allotted to communications efforts.
"This is a big state," Reiner said, noting that ads are costly. "We knew the programs weren't going to be successful unless people knew about them and how important they are."