Last week, the Arizona House Judiciary Committee passed HB 2156, which would stop state and local governments from campaigning with taxpayer dollars. In Arizona, this practice is already supposed to be unlawful – state laws say that cities, counties, and schools can’t use public “resources” to “influenc[e] the outcomes of elections.” Unfortunately, courts have essentially read these laws to prohibit only electioneering that “unambiguously” urges a “yes” or “no” vote. As a result, government bodies often skirt the law and use public resources to broadcast one-sided messages about ballot measures.
Worse, many of these laws are virtually unenforceable against offending governments, because in many cases only the attorney general or county attorney may prosecute violations. And while school district officials can be held personally liable if they misuse public money, the law says nothing about penalties for city, county, or state officials. Most government officials who campaign with public resources have nothing to lose, so the laws provide little protection for taxpayers.
HB 2156 requires government bodies to be truly neutral with taxpayer dollars. Government may inform the public on ballot issues, but publicly sponsored forums or events must be purely educational, with an equal opportunity for the presentation of all viewpoints. The bill creates one consolidated ban that applies to all public entities and all public resources, which is the law in about a third of other states. And if HB 2156 becomes law, it will enable taxpayers to bring enforcement lawsuits when government officials campaign with public resources.
Taxpayers have urged public officials to stop campaigning with their money, but urging only goes so far. It’s time for state legislators to close the loopholes on public-resource electioneering bans.
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