As overtaxed Arizonans struggle to pay their bills, local governments are campaigning on the taxpayer’s dime. The latest incident comes from Apache County, which spent more than $7,000 of the public’s money advertising election bond issues in newspapers and on the radio.
In theory, Arizona law prohibits using public resources to influence elections. Cities, counties and school districts are allowed to inform voters about what is on the ballot; but they shouldn’t use public money to lobby for passage of ballot measures.
In reality, these laws currently provide little protection for taxpayers. Unless the Attorney General’s Office gets involved, the statutes are virtually unenforceable against cities and counties. While school district officials are personally liable if they misuse public money, the law says nothing about possible penalties for city and county officials.
Arizona courts have been unwilling to hold local governments accountable unless their election ads “unambiguously” tell voters to vote for or against something on the ballot. Local governments have treated this as a blank check to fund ads that focus heavily on their arguments to vote for a ballot measure, and basically ignore any good reasons to vote against it.
The Goldwater Institute has urged public officials to stop campaigning with public money. But urging only goes so far. It’s time for state legislators to close the loopholes by passing clear, enforceable laws that require complete neutrality when spending taxpayer dollars on elections.
Christina Kohn is a staff attorney with the Goldwater Institute.
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