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Guest Commentary

‘Although minds may differ,’ government shouldn’t use tax dollars to campaign against voters


November 7, 2019

By now you’ve probably heard that the City of Olympia is facing a PDC complaint for illegally using tax dollars to campaign against I-976. Yesterday Olympia responded saying this about its 15,000 household, $7,423 taxpayer funded mailer:

“Although minds may differ, the City of Olympia believes that its mailer’s statement to ‘Vote No on l-976’ is a fair conclusion based on objective facts, keeping with the Olympia City Council’s resolution following a properly noticed public hearing.”

State law (RCW 42.17A.555), however, says (in-part):

“No elective official nor any employee of his or her office nor any person appointed to or employed by any public office or agency may use or authorize the use of any of the facilities of a public office or agency, directly or indirectly, for the purpose of assisting a campaign for election of any person to any office or for the promotion of or opposition to any ballot proposition. Facilities of a public office or agency include, but are not limited to, use of stationery, postage, machines, and equipment, use of employees of the office or agency during working hours, vehicles, office space, publications of the office or agency, and clientele lists of persons served by the office or agency.”

While it is clear that Olympia’s “Vote No on I-976” mailer violates this law, there is one loophole in the law that lawmakers should consider closing – the ability for governmental bodies to use taxpayer resources to pass a resolution to oppose/support a ballot measure.

This currently occurs routinely across the state, but should it?

As noted by former lawmaker and current Kirkland Council Member Toby Nixon:

“I’m working hard in Kirkland to change city council policy so that we don’t do resolutions of support/opposition to ballot measures anymore. I would be very happy if the legislature repealed 42.17A.555(1) entirely. My main arguments are that such resolutions DO spend public resources such as staff time to prepare for an conduct public hearings, that they are divisive (separating local government boards from half their population), and that they don’t persuade anybody but are just for earning political points with those aligned with the position taken. If councilmembers want to take a position, they should take it as individuals and not collectively -- that doesn’t cost the agency anything. The agency would still be allowed to produce and publish information about the potential impacts of ballot measures, but not ever use public resources to explicitly say ‘vote no’ or ‘vote yes’ on anything.”

‘Although minds may differ,’ I think Council Member Nixon is right. The legislature should re-evaluate the current loophole allowing governmental bodies to use tax dollars passing resolutions for/against ballot measures. Public officials should be free to speak as individuals but shouldn’t be speaking on behalf of citizens until voters have a chance to weigh in directly at the ballot box.

Jason Mercier is the Director, Center for Government Reform with the Washington Policy Center, Tri-Cities office.


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