Does Gov. Brown secretly harbor a death wish for Proposition 30? He claims this massive $50 billion tax hike is his highest priority as he personally stumps the state and editorial boards to urge its passage. And yet, as newspaper headlines have reflected all summer, his actions and other silly deeds of state government seem designed to give California voters every reason to vote no.
First was his manipulation of the ballot process — working in concert with Democratic leaders in the Legislature to give Prop. 30 preference on the November ballot by being listed first. Even California’s left-of-center editorial writers were offended. Then there was his doubling down on the controversial high speed rail project. The debt service for the largest infrastructure project in American history would more than cover his proposed cuts to higher education.
Compounding these head-scratching moves, it is later discovered that the California parks department hid $54 million while the administration was threatening to close more than 70 parks.
So, with just a few weeks until the election, have Prop. 30’s tax backers finally learned their lesson? Apparently not. In a move sure to antagonize an already skeptical voting public, California State University is about to send out a letter to those who have applied for admission to CSU that openly discusses Prop. 30 and — in the opinion of CSU — all the evils that would befall California if Prop. 30 doesn’t pass. This includes an implied threat to applicants that they might not gain admission. Here are the exact words in the draft letter that came to our attention:
“Because enrollment capacity is tied to the amount of available state funding, the campuses will be able to admit more applicants if Proposition 30 passes and fewer applicants if the proposition fails.
“Therefore, notification of admission decisions will occur after the close of the initial application filing period (Nov. 30, 2012), at which time the outcome of Proposition 30 at the Nov. 6 election will be known.”
Before discussing the political wisdom of this missive, know that using taxpayer funds for political advocacy is illegal. Under California law, public universities are prohibited from engaging in political advocacy using public resources. Similar prohibitions apply to K-12 schools and community colleges. No use may be made of school property, funds, personnel, supplies or equipment “for the purpose of urging the support or defeat of any ballot measure.” Education Code §7054(c).
As soon as we became aware of the letter intended for distribution to CSU applicants, we sent a letter to CSU Chancellor Charles Reed in the hopes that litigation could be avoided. In our letter we made our position clear:
“Universities may make public statements of an informational nature, provided they are factual and impartial. Statements that are not factual, that are not impartial or balanced, or address subjects beyond the scope of the limited legislative authorization are prohibited both by statute and by our state and federal constitutions.
“The free speech clauses of the federal and state constitutions prohibit the use of governmentally-compelled monetary contributions (including taxes) to support or oppose political campaigns since ‘such contributions are a form of speech, and compelled speech offends the First Amendment.’” Smith v. U.C. Regents (1993) 4 Cal.4th 843, 852.
Moreover, “use of the public treasury to mount an election campaign which attempts to influence the resolution of issues which our Constitution leaves to the ‘free election’ of the people (see Const., art. II, § 2) … presents a serious threat to the integrity of the electoral process.” Stanson v. Mott (1976) 17 Cal.3d 206, 218.
The draft letter in our possession violates these core democratic principles by presenting unbalanced advocacy. For example, the California School Boards Association — although it, too, has endorsed Proposition 30 — acknowledged that there is no guarantee that there will be any new money for education.
It is a serious breach of the public trust when government officials spend public funds to create an advantage for one side of a political campaign. As you may know, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has successfully sued individual officials in similar circumstances for an accounting and personal reimbursement of mishandled public funds.
We’ll see what the chancellor’s response to these concerns is, hopefully soon. But the political question remains: How can the proponents of Proposition 30 be so politically tone deaf? Do they not consider, for a single moment, that the use of taxpayer dollars to advocate for a tax increase might, just possibly, look bad?
Compounding the bad “optics” for the backers of Prop. 30, who will no doubt claim that politics has nothing to do with this letter, is the fact that a member of the CSU Board of Directors is the governor’s own political director.
Jerry Brown and his allies need desperately to convince California voters that the state has justified the need for this massive tax increase. And yet, every week it seems they do something that will persuade voters that just the opposite is true.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.