Public agencies can't use public dollars to campaign for ballot measures. Just imagine if they could: A school district puts a bond measure on the ballot, then uses some of the voters' tax money to send out slick mailers to persuade those same voters to adopt the measure. Unhappy voters could organize an opposition campaign, but even as they pay out of one pocket to defeat the measure, the district reaches into their other pocket -- their taxpaying pocket -- to pass it. At some point the district looks less like a public agency and more like a racket.
Agencies need not remain silent while others speak. That same district may legally use public resources to let voters know the probable consequences of the ballot measure. It can, for example, post on its website what services it plans to add if the measure passes, or what it will have to cut if it doesn't. Advocacy, no; analysis, yes.
Some agencies play too close to the line. Consider the Los Angeles Unified School District's publicly funded campaign for -- oops, make that campaign about -- Measure Q on last November's ballot. A mailer called on voters to "Learn more about Measure Q and how it makes our schools safer" and to "Remember to vote on Q Nov. 4th." Not "vote for Q," mind you. But even without the magic word "for," the school district made it quite clear what it wanted voters to do.
Many cities and districts run similar, barely legal "information" campaigns. They insist that they need the money, and in fact many of the ballot measures they push are good policy and should be adopted. But that doesn't justify misusing public funds.
In April, the state Supreme Court actually gave such agencies some comfort by upholding the use of taxpayer funds on a ballot measure. On closer inspection, though, the opinion in Vargas vs. City of Salinas was an invitation to California regulators to draw a sharper line between informing and electioneering. The rules to be considered Thursday by the Fair Political Practices Commission may go as far as they can under Vargas, but they may still leave too much leeway to agencies intent on pushing the limits of the law. Rules that ban communications that are "clearly" or "can be reasonably characterized as" campaign material, as the proposed rules read in part, could still be finessed by elected officials armed with public dollars.
Even if they fall short, the new regulations are a significant step forward and the commission should vote for them (and not just on them). They won't permanently protect public money from improper use. But they may, at least for a while, slow down school districts, cities and other public agencies that refuse to let integrity get in the way of victory.