Stopping an abuse of local tax dollars

Published April 12, 2007


In the fall, when absentee voters in Pinellas County got their ballot in the mail, they also got a county brochure telling them which way to vote on county charter amendments.

In the same election, when voters in some Pinellas cities got their utility bill, they too got an insert telling them which way to vote. At least one city put campaign signs on emergency vehicles.

We're not talking about mere "informational" efforts to "explain" the ballot. These efforts, paid for with tax dollars, were meant to tell voters flat-out: vote yes on this, no on that, right down the line.

Third example. Last month, when the voters of Pinellas County were deciding whether to renew the "Penny for Pinellas" sales tax, the county and cities pasted parks and public buildings with pro-Penny signs. They even put them on polling places until somebody complained.

Good grief! The government, telling people which way to vote? And using tax dollars to do it?

There ought to be a law.

There are bills in this year's Legislature, both in the Senate and House, to ban it. But those bills are in trouble.

Senate Bill 734 is by Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg. Here is the key sentence:

A local government or a person acting on behalf of a local government may not expend, directly or indirectly, public funds to support or oppose an issue, referendum, or amendment that is subject to a vote of the electors.

Local elected officials could still state their opinion. Local governments could still put out truly "informational" material that didn't take sides.

Justice's bill passed unanimously in the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, but has idled since.

The bigger problem is that House Bill 749, sponsored by Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole, is stuck at the starting gate. Long's bill is unlikely to be heard in the House Ethics & Elections Committee.

Probably the only way for it to be heard, in fact, is through an unusual step - by pulling the bill out of the committee, and taking it up at the next-highest "council" level. The council chairman who could do that is Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.

You know, if Florida's cities, counties and school boards can take sides in elections to "protect the interests of our constituents," then they ought to start taking sides in races for the Legislature, too.

What if a candidate for the Legislature ran on an anticity platform - isn't St. Petersburg or Clearwater entitled, then, to "protect its interests" by spending tax dollars on ads opposing him or her?

To make this point, Justice proposed a sarcastic amendment to our state budget. It would give $1-million to the "Pinellas Delegation Public Education Pilot Program." It's a joke, of course - there's no such thing.

This has a been a problem in other areas of the state too. The attitude of the cities and counties is not at all sheepish - they proudly claim that they have a right, even a "duty" to "educate" voters. It's dangerous. It's wrong. Heck, it's downright un-American.

* * *

This week I'm in Tallahassee, watching our Legislature at work. I'm posting photos, updates, reader comments and items about Tampa Bay folks in the Capitol on TroxBlog. Check it out at www.tampabay.com by clicking on the "Blogs" link.