Orange and Durham County governments are under scrutiny for using taxpayer dollars to lobby for passage of sales tax hikes. As discussed in this N&O article:
Orange County has allocated $84,500 in taxpayer money to put the sales tax on the ballot, including $50,000 to tell voters how it would benefit residents.
Durham’s referendum campaigns are bankrolled by two private committees, which together have spent about $8,311.
Daren Bakst, director of legal and regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, cites an Orange County video and a flier distributed by Durham Public Schools as examples of illegal endorsements. He has asked the counties to remove such information from their websites and to stop disseminating it to students and their parents.
Small problem – using taxpayer funds to lobby for or endorse such measures is against the law.
Last year, the General Assembly passed a law that says counties, municipalities and school boards “shall not use public funds to endorse or oppose a referendum, election or a particular candidate for office.”
Orange County is no stranger to using taxpayer funds to lobby for yet more taxpayer dollars. I wrote about this issue in 2008, before the new state law was enacted, but the legality of local governments using taxpayer funds to endorse tax increases was clearly in doubt.
But just what kind of taxpayer-financed “education” is legal? The North Carolina Court of Appeals attempted to clarify this issue in 2002 in the case Dollar v. Town of Cary. In that case, the court declared that the “determination of whether advertising is informational or promotional is a factual question. … It is not necessary for the advertisement to urge voters to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘for’ or ‘against’ a particular issue or candidate in order for the advertising to be promotional.”
The Dollar ruling seemingly draws the legal line at “informational” versus “promotional,” and “education” versus “advocacy” in terms of the message being disseminated by county officials. In their quest for more tax revenues, local officials have often straddled this line.
According to a March 6 article in the News & Observer, a petition is being filed with the Orange County Board of Elections to investigate possible election violations stemming from the board’s decision to pay $10,000 for public research polling regarding local tax options.
Taxpayer-funded opinion surveys like this one violate election laws when they are used for strategic, rather than educational, purposes. Was the Orange County poll used for strategic purposes? According to Mark Hertzog of Hertzog Research, LLC –the company that conducted the poll for Orange County — “It (the poll results) can help determine how best to put that issue to your voters during a campaign.”
Given their recent controversy, Orange County officials should have known better than to use taxpayer funds for such a blatant endorsement of a ballot initiative. But their insatiable desire for more tax dollars is simply too strong.