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Accountability for beginners

February 21, 2006

WHEN CALIFORNIANS APPROVED Proposition 10 eight years ago by a margin of exactly one percentage point, they agreed to tax cigarettes a half-dollar a pack to fund a variety of children's programs. What they probably didn't realize is that they also created an unelected government agency controlled by Rob Reiner, and that he would spend their millions, against the spirit if not the letter of the law, on campaign propaganda aimed at influencing their votes.

As detailed Monday by Times staff writer Dan Morain, Reiner's First 5 California Children and Families Commission, which is appointed by the governor to disburse 20% of the Proposition 10 funds, doled out a whopping $23 million from November to January to promote the idea of "preschool for all." Those happen to be the same three words Reiner uses to describe his latest initiative, Proposition 82, which will raise the income tax on wealthy Californians to pay for -- that's right -- universal preschool. This despite California law prohibiting tax money being spent on campaign advertising. Defenders of the campaign say that as long as the spots don't tell people how to vote, they're informative, not political.


The shenanigans don't end there. First 5 paid $206,000 to three political consultants who did not bid for the work. All three have moved on to -- surprise! -- the Proposition 82 campaign.

That's a drop in the bucket compared to the $230 million in cigarette tax money First 5 has ladled out to advertising and public relations companies, each of which helped Reiner with Proposition 10 before it was passed. The main beneficiary, a firm called GMMB, has cashed in on nearly $170 million; the company's 2004 bidding package was topped off by a glowing cover letter by ... Rob Reiner.

Government, as Reiner is coming to find out, has a different set of transparency standards from Hollywood. If he or any other commissioners are uncomfortable abiding by them, they are free to step aside.

And he may also want to retire the phrase "I want to do things right for kids" as a catch-all justification for every action he takes in their name. Government may be about providing help to those who cannot help themselves, but it doesn't necessarily follow that public policy is about who can show off the biggest heart. It's about making the most optimal choices with the people's money.

And make no mistake -- spending taxpayer money on PR aimed at swaying their votes is a gross misuse of funds, even if it comes from icky smokers. The Fair Political Practices Commission should be aggressive in determining whether First 5 broke the law. And handing out hundreds of millions of dollar to a handful of friendly ad agencies suggests, at minimum, a carelessness deserving more scrutiny.

If Reiner expects the public to cough up another tax at the ballot box this June, he may want to become more comfortable with the idea that with government power comes real accountability. And voters may want to take a more skeptical look at the First 5 program before they decide whether to give their approval to Reiner's latest brainchild.

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