Lawmakers in a growing number of states are attempting to resolve the dilemma of taxpayer-funded lobbying, which often accompanies advocacy for higher tax burdens and increased government spending. For example, according to a. spent at least $42 million on lobbyists last year to learn by the Commonwealth Foundation, a Pennsylvania-based think tank. Meanwhile in Texas, a study by the Texas Public Policy Foundation found During the 2017 legislature alone, local governments spent $41 million on lobbyists. In response, the Texas Senate passed legislation in 2019 barring local governments from hiring lobbyists, and lawmakers in other states are expected to introduce similar reforms in 2023.
Lobbying retainers aren’t the only way local governments are using taxpayer dollars to lobby for higher taxes and more government spending. North Carolina’s third-most populous county, Guilford County, was recently accused of using taxpayers’ money to unlawfully advocate two measures in the May 17 ballot, one of which would increase local sales taxes by a quarter percent, while the other would increase local sales taxes by a quarter percent $1.7 approval would provide for billion-dollar bond issue. Critics allege the district violates a state law that prohibits using taxpayer dollars to support or endorse a particular election 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 vacant seat on the commission, Filed a complaint with the County Board of Elections on April 27, alleging that taxpayers’ money is being misused to support the bond and tax hike measures.
As evidence, Branson’s complaint cites information about the two electoral measures taken on the District administration website. Branson’s complaint alleges that the county website’s description “presents the viewer with a grossly unbalanced discussion of the bond, emphasizing needs and downplaying costs.” Branson’s complaint notes that the district has not disclosed the hundreds of millions of dollars in interest and other costs associated with the bond to the public.
Guilford County is also accused of misleading voters by alluding to the official bond information page that the proposed sales tax increase, if approved, would trigger a property tax reduction where 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 revaluation of all Guilford County properties this year, the tax rate will be reduced regardless of the outcome of the referendum. ”
The complaint against Guilford County also cites a postcard sent to county residents advertising the benefits of the school bond. Although this mailer did not list the funding source, it was confirmed that it was paid for by the county government. Though the legality of their actions have been questioned, the county has since sent another mailer to voters about the bond action. According to Branson, his attorney asked the county to place remedial action on the voting measures at local outlets, a request the county has denied.
At one point, the county website only showed the Democrat sample ballot, which lists only Democratic candidates. Following complaints from Guilford County Republicans, the official county website was updated to show sample ballots for both major parties.
Guilford County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin “Skip” Alston dismisses the claim that what the county is doing is thinly veiled advocacy that is publicly funded. “What the county is doing is education,” says Alston Expectations. “The county is responsible for funding our schools.”
“By law, county governments are allowed to use taxpayers’ money to conduct awareness-raising campaigns surrounding balloting referendums,” explained David Bass of the Carolina Journal. “But governments are strictly forbidden from actively promoting the passage of these referendums. That walks a fine line between education and advocacy that counties often seem to cross.”
“As state treasurer, as chairman of the local government commission, I’m always pro-voter-approved debt,” North Carolina treasurer Dale Folwell told the Carolina Journal. “I’m always against violating ethics laws when it comes to using money for advertising purposes when the law doesn’t allow it.”
Folwell isn’t the only national official to speak out about this alleged misuse of public resources. “These are serious allegations that Guilford County residents, like myself, need to heed,” North Carolina Deputy Governor Mark Robinson (R) told Forbes. “While governments can use taxpayers’ money to educate the public about a bond referendum, they must not sponsor these disguised tax hikes.”
“The improper use of our tax dollars to buy advertising to convince voters to raise their own taxes is forbidden by our laws for a good reason: citizens should be able to trust the information that comes from their government and when “The government’s move to providing voters with biased and one-sided information using voters’ own taxpayers’ money damages that trust,” Robinson added. “Guilford County taxpayers deserve to know that our tax dollars are being spent legally and wisely. When laws have been broken, taxpayers deserve an investigation and those responsible held accountable.”
A 2002 North Carolina Circuit Court of Appeals decision cited in the Guilford County complaint bodes well for Branson if he or anyone else decides to take legal action against the county. This 20-year-old precedent – Dollars vs. City of Cary – also included an allegation of improper taxpayer-funded advocacy. In this case, the court ruled that “it is not necessary for the advertisement to ask voters to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘for’ or ‘against’ any particular issue or candidate for the advertisement to be valid is promotional.”
Members of the North Carolina General Assembly have a number of options to prevent the abuse of taxpayers’ money currently alleged in Guilford County. First, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) and the Republican-led General Assembly could consider legislation that would require all local tax and bond measures to be considered in the November general election, when turnout is much higher, thereby achieving a larger share voters have a say in these important matters.
Another reform that state legislatures could implement to uphold truth in advertising would be the passage of legislation requiring all borrowing measures to list voters not just the amount of principal that the borrowing would borrow and for which taxpayers would pay would be on the hook, but would also have to cover the interest costs that taxpayers would pay. If the $1.7 billion bond measure is approved on May 17, it will cost Guilford County taxpayers $50 million annually to service the debt, which is enough money to hire 1,136 new teachers , based on the average teacher salary in Guilford County schools. The sales tax hike on the ballot is expected to bring in as much as $22 million a year, meaning it will cover less than half the cost of annual interest payments related to the new bond issue. That interest cost had been omitted from the county’s official information page on the bond measure, but was updated days ago to include it at the request of Branson and other Guilford County Republicans.
The Guilford County Board of Elections recently agreed to refer Branson’s Complaint to the State Board of Elections. Regardless of the outcome of this complaint, this Guilford County row could spur state legislatures to pass meaningful reforms in 2023, when Republicans could have a veto-safe majority in both houses of the General Assembly.