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Tax money underwrites appeals to voters

October 25, 2008|David Zahniser | Zahniser is a Times staff writer

Two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District mailed voters what officials described as a "fact sheet" on Measure Q, a $7-billion construction bond on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Although it did not explicitly tell recipients how to vote, the taxpayer-funded document dropped some major hints, using such headlines as "Measure Q Improves School Safety," "Measure Q Improves the Learning Environment" and "Measure Q is Fiscally Accountable."

The district went further, writing a six-paragraph script about Measure Q for principals to read in "phone blasts" to parents. And it purchased $21,000 worth of hats and T-shirts, each saying "Measure Q," distributing them on school campuses.

Although government agencies are barred from using public money to pay for campaign activities, a 2005 court ruling states that they can distribute information on ballot measures -- as long as the contents don't include "express advocacy," such as an explicit instruction on how to vote.

A Times survey found that the Los Angeles school district is one of at least eight agencies in Southern California using taxpayer money to stage outreach campaigns about measures that would benefit them. The practice, at times highly sophisticated, is drawing complaints from taxpayer advocates and "clean government" groups, who say public agencies are improperly using public funds to extract more money from voters.

In the run-up to this year's election, the city of Lynwood posted a five-minute video on its website discussing Measure II, a proposal to retain a local utility users tax. Pico Rivera city officials plan to send six mailers about Measure P, a 1-cent sales tax hike to balance that city's budget.

The practice has even produced internal dissent at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which spent $1.1 million on brochures, newspaper ads and radio spots on Measure R, the half-cent sales tax hike for transportation.

L.A. Unified has taken the concept to its limit, waging a $1-million outreach campaign that includes three mailers sent to 450,000 likely voters. Two of the three stop just short of an endorsement. "This November 4th, remember to vote on Measure Q," reads a piece hitting mailboxes this week.

Experts say the last L.A. Unified mailer crosses a legal line, resembling the campaign brochures typically sent by political committees and paid for by private contributors. "This piece clearly takes a position," said Kathay Feng, executive director of the political reform group California Common Cause. "It is not just a quote-unquote educational piece."

Los Angeles City Controller Laura Chick went further, calling the mailer "a complete bending and stretching of the rules."

"This is why people don't trust their government," said Chick, who opposes the bond measure.

Foes of Measure Q said the taxpayer-funded mailers should have mentioned that this is the district's fifth bond measure in 11 years and that the four prior bonds will eventually cost homeowners $185 per year for each $100,000 that their homes are assessed.

School district officials have a different view, saying their mailings provide indisputable facts about Measure Q, including the monthly cost. They argue that their election strategy provides information, not advocacy, and complies with the law.

"You can quibble about what it is that you ought to put in" a mailer, said Michael Strumwasser, a lawyer for the district. "I don't understand that as a matter of law, you are obligated to tell them how many bonds you have had."

The trend has sparked a debate over what is, and is not, political advocacy by a public agency. Strumwasser, for example, argued that the Measure Q caps and shirts are designed to increase voter turnout and should not be interpreted as taking an explicit yes or no position on the bond.

By mid-October, L.A. Unified had spent more money discussing Measure Q than the Coalition for Safe and Healthy Neighborhood Schools, the official committee that is using private contributions to campaign for the bond measure. The coalition had raised $704,800 and spent $426,373 as of Oct. 18, according to reports.

Ballot measure committees typically thrive on repetition, using mailers and phone calls to remind voters of an issue on a crowded ballot. Now, L.A. Unified is providing much of that repetition, albeit at taxpayer expense.

But although such practices can provide a winning formula on election day, they can also produce a political backlash.

Three years ago, the Ventura County district attorney produced a 38-page report on efforts by the Ventura County Transportation Commission to pass the half-cent sales tax known as Measure B. Although the report concluded that no criminal prosecutions were necessary, it described the agency's use of public funds -- including $273,000 for postcards and voter opinion polls -- as improper.

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