More and more state lawmakers are seeking to solve the conundrum of taxpayer-funded lobbying, which often involves advocating for a heavier tax burden and higher levels of government spending. Taxpayers in Pennsylvania, for example, spent at least $42 million last year on lobbyists, according to a study by the Commonwealth Foundation, a Pennsylvania-based think tank. Meanwhile, in Texas, a study by the Texas Public Policy Foundation found that local governments spent $41 million on lobbyists in the 2017 legislative session alone. In response, legislation barring local governments from hiring lobbyists was passed by the Texas Senate in 2019, and lawmakers in other states are expected to introduce similar reforms in 2023.
Lobbying mandates aren’t the only way local governments are using taxpayer dollars to advocate for higher taxes and public spending. North Carolina’s third-most populous county, Guilford County, was recently accused of using taxpayer resources to illegally defend two measures in the May 17 primary ballot, one of which would increase sales tax. local a quarter percent while the other would authorize a $1.7 billion bond. Critics argue that the county is violating a state law that prohibits the use of taxpayers’ money to endorse or defend a particular ballot measure or candidate.
Jerry Alan Branson, who previously served on the Guilford County Board of Commissioners for eight years and is now running for a seat on the commission, filed a complaint with the county board of elections on April 27 alleging that the taxpayers’ money is being misused. used to advocate for bond and tax hike measures.
As evidence, Branson’s complaint cites information about the two ballot measures presented on the county government’s website. Branson’s complaint argues that the county’s website description “presents the viewer with a totally unbalanced discussion of the link, emphasizing need and minimizing cost.” Branson’s complaint notes that the county has not provided the public with any information about the hundreds of millions of dollars in interest and other costs associated with the bail.
Guilford County is also accused of misleading voters by insinuating on the official bond information page that the proposed sales tax hike, if approved, would trigger a property tax cut then that such a tax reduction is already planned. Guilford County’s information page on the bond measure, Branson noted in his complaint, “does not mention that due to the reassessment of all Guilford County properties this year, the tax rate is going to be reduced regardless of the outcome of the referendum.”
The lawsuit against Guilford County also cites a postcard sent to county residents advertising the benefits of school bonding. Although this letter did not indicate the source of funding, it was confirmed that it was paid for by the county government. Although the legality of their actions is in question, the county has since sent subsequent mail about the obligation measure to voters. According to Branson, his attorney asked the county to run corrective ads about the ballot measures at local outlets, a request the county denied.
At one point, the county’s website only displayed the sample Democratic ballot, which lists Democratic candidates exclusively. It was after complaints from Guilford County Republicans that the county’s official website was updated to show sample ballots for both major parties.
Guilford County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin “Skip” Alston rejects the claim that what the county is doing is thinly veiled advocacy funded by public resources. “What the county does is education,” Alston says. “The county is responsible for funding our schools.”
“By law, county governments are allowed to use taxpayer funds to conduct education campaigns around referendums,” says David Bass of the Carolina Journal. “But governments are strictly prohibited from actively promoting the adoption of these referendums. This draws a fine line between education and advocacy that counties often seem to cross.
“As state treasurer, as chairman of the Local Government Commission, I am always in favor of voter-approved debt,” North Carolina Treasurer Dale Folwell told the Carolina Log. “I am always against violating ethics laws regarding the use of money for promotion when it is not permitted by law.”
Folwell is not the only statewide official to comment on this alleged misuse of public resources. “These are serious allegations that Guilford County residents, like me, need to pay attention to,” North Carolina Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson (R) told Forbes. “While governments can use taxpayers’ money to educate the public about a bond referendum, they are not allowed to advocate for these covert tax increases.”
“The inappropriate use of our tax dollars to buy advertising to persuade voters to raise their own taxes is prohibited by our laws for a good reason: citizens should be able to trust information from their government, and when the government crosses the line by providing biased and one-sided information to voters, using taxpayers’ money, that trust is shaken,” Robinson added. “Guilford County taxpayers deserve to know that our tax dollars are being spent lawfully and wisely. If the laws have been broken, taxpayers deserve an investigation, and those responsible must be held accountable. »
A 2002 North Carolina Court of Appeals decision cited in the lawsuit against Guilford County bodes well for Branson if he or anyone else decides to pursue legal action against the county. This 20-year-old precedent-setting case – Dollar v. Town of Cary – also involved an allegation of taxpayer-funded improper advocacy. In that case, the court ruled that “it is not necessary for the advertisement to induce voters to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘for’ or ‘against’ a particular issue or candidate for the advertisement to either promotional. »
Members of the North Carolina General Assembly have a number of options to deter from proceeding with the type of misuse of taxpayer dollars that is currently being alleged in Guilford County. For starters, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) and the Republican-led General Assembly could consider legislation that would require all local tax and bond measures to be listed on the November general election ballot when voter turnout is much higher, thus giving a greater share of the electorate a say in these important issues.
Another reform that state legislators could implement to ensure truth in advertising would be to pass legislation requiring all bond measures to tell voters not only the principal amount the bond would borrow and for which taxpayers would be responsible, but also the interest costs that the taxpayers would have to cover. If the $1.7 billion bond measure is approved on May 17, it will cost Guilford County taxpayers $50 million a year to pay off the debt, which is enough to hire 1,136 new teachers on base. the average teacher salary in Guilford County schools. The ballot sales tax hike is expected to yield up to $22 million a year, meaning it will cover less than half the cost of the annual interest payments associated with the new bond. Those interest charges had been omitted from the county’s official bond measurement information page, but were updated a few days ago to include them at the request of Branson and other County Republicans. Guilford.
The Guilford County Board of Elections recently voted to refer Branson’s complaint to the state Board of Elections. Regardless of the outcome of this complaint, this dispute in Guilford County could provide the impetus for state lawmakers to pass meaningful reforms in 2023, when Republicans could have unvetoed majorities in both houses of the state. General Assembly.