This article was originally published in the Chapel Hill news.
Most of us are familiar with the old saying "It takes money to make money." But for government officials across North Carolina, it "takes money to take money."
What do I mean by that? It seems that government officials have grown quite fond of using tax dollars to convince voters to approve tax or spending increases. In other words, they are spending our tax dollars to convince us to hand over even more tax dollars.
Thanks to last year’s state budget, which gave county governments the ability to raise their local taxes pending voter approval, county commissioners across the state have embarked on so-called education campaigns in hopes of getting such tax hikes approved. Flyers, brochures, yard signs and even billboards are all tactics being employed by local officials to "inform" voters about upcoming tax referenda.
But just what kind of taxpayer-financed "education" is legal? The North Carolina Court of Appeals attempted to clarify this issue in 2002 in the case Dollar v. Town of Cary. In that case, the court declared that the "determination of whether advertising is informational or promotional is a factual question. … It is not necessary for the advertisement to urge voters to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘for’ or ‘against’ a particular issue or candidate in order for the advertising to be promotional."
The Dollar ruling seemingly draws the legal line at "informational" versus "promotional," and "education" versus "advocacy" in terms of the message being disseminated by county officials. In their quest for more tax revenues, local officials have often straddled this line.
The North Carolina Association of County Commissioners (NCACC) has played an active role in providing guidance to their members’ "education" campaigns. In fact, they have used our tax dollars to host seminars to train county officials on how to mount a "successful" campaign.
In a recent online "President’s Perspective," NCACC president David Young told members that "the Association will hold another daylong session on mounting successful public education campaigns." How does Young define "successful"? Earlier in the piece he offers this clue, "The counties that were successful in November were able to convince their citizens that this alternative revenue source was needed." This is an obvious reference to counties that approved an increase in their local sales tax last fall. Does this sound like an organization merely interested in providing "informational" material?
Perhaps the most notable case of county officials engaging in legally questionable activity comes from Orange County and its efforts to get a land transfer tax approved by voters this May.
According to a March 6 article in the News & Observer, a petition is being filed with the Orange County Board of Elections to investigate possible election violations stemming from the board’s decision to pay $10,000 for public research polling regarding local tax options.
Taxpayer-funded opinion surveys like this one violate election laws when they are used for strategic, rather than educational, purposes. Was the Orange County poll used for strategic purposes? According to Mark Hertzog of Hertzog Research, LLC –the company that conducted the poll for Orange County — "It (the poll results) can help determine how best to put that issue to your voters during a campaign."
You be the judge.
Moreover, the Orange County Board of Commissioners developed an initial draft statement of intent regarding the use of revenue from the potential land transfer tax. Included in the statement was this phrase: "If the county commissioners do not have voter approval to levy a 0.4% land transfer tax, that inevitably will lead to property tax increases to meet capital needs that MUST be funded."
In other words, taxpayers need to be threatened with an inevitable tax increase of some form or another to be properly "informed." It is quite curious that none of these "public education" campaigns include any details on the growth of government spending.
When politicians use your money to urge you to send them even more money, it not only raises questions of legality, it speaks to the elitist attitude of many of our elected officials. The fact that they believe taxpayers are not properly "educated" if they choose not to approve tax increases tells us that our political leaders feel entitled to as much of our money as they desire.