By David Kline, Cal-Tax Communications Director
"That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet." Shakespeare was right, but his observation doesn't carry much weight in the world of political elections. Simply put, voters react differently based upon how things are presented to them – they might cast a ballot in favor of a "rose," but would vote against the poor flower if it was described as "a shrub or vine of the genus Rosa, having prickly stems and flowers with a strong odor."
Campaign consultants know this very well, and they make good money by studying election results, parsing ballot descriptions and conducting focus groups to test different messages on likely voters. This is all well and good, except when the campaign consultants start working against the interests of the people who are paying them. And that is exactly what is happening in many local elections this year, as taxpayer-funded consultants are helping local officials come up with ballot language that misleads taxpayers.
In several local elections, voters are being asked to approve tax increases, but the ballot descriptions are written to hide the tax and instead focus on services that most people support, like education and police protection.
Examples of this misdirection are not hard to find. In Los Angeles County, there are several measures on the March 3 ballot that would expand the existing telephone tax (officially dubbed the "utility users' tax on telecommunications") to cell phones, text messaging, Voice over Internet Protocol and other forms of communication that aren't currently taxed. These measures would increase taxes for anyone who uses a cell phone, but they aren't identified as tax increases on the ballot!
Instead, voters in the city of Bellflower are being asked if they want to "continue and modernize" the tax "to fund vital services," including the Sheriff's Department, school safety programs, graffiti removal and more. The ballot statement says the "modernized" tax includes provisions "requiring equal treatment of taxpayers regardless of technology used, audits, citizens oversight committee" and local control of revenues.
Voters who want more information – like how much this tax expansion is going to cost – won't find much on the city's website. Rather than providing the text of the measure, the city manager uses the home page of the taxpayer-funded site to deliver this "important message" about the proposal:
"Measure A provides a protected, reliable revenue source to continue funding for youth programs that serve 1,500 kids: anti-gang and drug prevention programs to fight gangs, youth after-school activities that address juvenile violence, and recreational programs that keep kids off the streets and out of trouble. On March 3rd, don't forget to vote on Measure A …"
This dedicated public servant chooses his words carefully. He asks residents to vote "on" Measure A, but not "for" the measure, even though that is the clear message behind his campaign-style announcement.
A simple, truthful ballot statement would be so much more helpful to voters. A one-line question would suffice: "Shall Bellflower residents pay a 5 percent utility users' tax on their cell phones and other communications devices to raise money for the city's general fund?"
In similar situations in Gardena and Redondo Beach, ballot descriptions ask if voters want to "update" the tax. Redondo Beach even worked the city's talking points into the measure's official ballot title, calling it the "Vital Services Utility Users Tax Update Measure."
Some cities are more blatant in their attempts to use the ballot description to advocate for passage of a measure. The ballot description of Carson's Measure C, which would put a tax on electricity and gas bills, is especially loaded in favor of the proponents: "Shall an ordinance be adopted to protect residents' health, maintain current levels of city services including deputy sheriff's patrols, 9-1-1 emergency response, youth recreation programs, Meals on Wheels for homebound seniors, Stroke Recovery Center, gang prevention/intervention programs, graffiti removal, pothole repair, park maintenance, and other general City services, by establishing a 2 percent utility users' tax, exempting seniors and low-income households, with citizens' oversight and independent annual audits, requiring the ordinance end after 7 years?"
Here is a direct, factual description of the same measure: "Shall the city enact a 2 percent tax on residents' monthly electricity and gas bills, with the revenue going into the city's general fund?"
Unfortunately, local governments don't seem to be interested in providing voters with unbiased information. Their main interest is collecting more tax revenue. They are bound by a constitutional provision that requires them to get voters' approval of local taxes, but thanks to anti-taxpayer court decisions, they know they can play fast and loose with campaign-style messages on ballot materials and government websites in an effort to influence the vote.
Taxpayers deserve better than this. They deserve ballot materials that are factually accurate, with full disclosure, and they should not face a situation where the ballot summary is nothing but a recitation of the proponents' talking points.
If local officials want to raise taxes, they should level with the voters, rather than using their taxpayer-supported offices and taxpayer-funded ballot materials like a campaign war room.
Cal-Taxletter, February 13, 2009
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