Did you know your tax dollars are being used to, well, convince you to raise your own taxes? If your county is one that has the land transfer tax referendum on the ballot this November, then it’s likely your county commissioners — the same ones who voted to put the referendum on the ballot — are using your tax dollars in a lobbying campaign designed to convince you to approve the tax.
Sound incredible? County commissioners statewide pay dues to the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners (NCACC) — an organization that represents their interests. Of course, they don’t use their personal resources. They use money they collect from you in both property and sales taxes to pay those dues. On September 19, the NCACC hosted county commissioners from across North Carolina for a one-day seminar on how successfully to “educate” the citizens to vote for tax increases.
“The important thing is to stay on your own message” reads the NCACC Web site (www.ncacc.org). “Friends of Wake County found the message that best resonated with voters was ‘bonds are the best way to pay.’” There’s more where this came from.
NCACC’s seminar focused on teaching county commissioners how effectively to form a public campaign, what steps to take to build citizen support, and explained how to push the legal envelope with their advocacy efforts. Panelists and speakers included communications and grassroots campaign specialists who instructed county commissioners how to strain the limits of “educating” citizens without actually telling them how to vote. The commissioners were shown slideshows of “best practices” from other successful public information campaigns and taught what went wrong when tax referendums failed.
Commissioners were also taught to use public information as ways to push their tax increase agenda and to “piggy back” the information in people’s tax bills, employees’ pay checks and utility bills. How ironic that in the same bill from which they are collecting your property tax, they intend to “educate” you to further raise taxes on yourself. Clever to be sure. But is it right?
In multiple counties this fall, reports have surfaced that tax increase “education” materials have also been sent home with schoolchildren. This is wrong on two levels. First, state law prohibits the use of public resources to support or oppose tax referendums or any other political issue. Second, exploiting schoolchildren as messengers to advance a political agenda is ethically questionable.
In Union County, the commissioners authorized and paid for the printing of tax-subsidized “education” materials to show the residents how beneficial the land transfer tax would be. Isn’t this sort of machinations not just an abuse of power, but an affront to free expression?
Curiously, unlike any other political organization, county commissioners don’t have to disclose how much they are spending to lobby you. It’s bad enough that they’re up to all of this. But where do they find the audacity (or the legitimacy) to tell the public we don’t have the right to know how much of our money they’re spending?
Never mind the question of why county commissioners feel they need to raise taxes in the first place. In the legislation (HB 1473) that authorized the use of referendums to raise taxes, every county was relieved of its share of paying for Medicaid in exchange for the state keeping a larger portion of sales tax revenues. However, that legislation contained a “hold harmless” provision ensuring each county would receive at least $500,000 in additional revenue – that is, more than they had prior to the Medicaid-tax swap. Thus, counties are already better off than they were before. And yet they want to raise taxes even more? It’s pretty clear that any purported “need” for revenue sources is but a cover for these commissioners’ power lust.
Simply said: county commissioners are covertly spending taxpayer money to lobby residents to raise their own taxes. It is wrong and should be stopped. Commissioners have a duty to be advocates for the public trust – whether or not that includes tax increases. That trust is violated when citizens are forced to bankroll the government’s public relations machine.