We already knew that the California state government was desperate to hang on to the new gas tax they passed last year. It was previously revealed that state road crew workers had been paid to stop traffic to hand out flyers opposing the tax repeal effort. Now, however, the publicity campaign the state is waging is becoming even more direct and legally questionable. The Associated Press has obtained a number of emails between the state transportation agency and a public affairs firm which appear to bend, if not break the laws preventing the government from using taxpayer money to engage in political campaigning.
As the political battle to overturn California’s gas tax increase intensified, the state transportation agency coordinated frequently with the public affairs firm working to block the repeal on behalf of unions, construction companies and local government groups, emails obtained by The Associated Press show.
The California State Transportation Agency and Sacramento-based Bicker, Castillo & Fairbanks organized news conferences and other efforts to promote legislation to raise the tax to fund road and bridge repairs, which passed the Legislature in April 2017. After Gov. Jerry Brown signed it, the agency and firm continued planning events and coordinating social media posts as opponents gathered signatures for repeal.
Three ethics experts interviewed by the AP said the emails raise concerns that the agency’s relationship with the firm was too close, but none saw a clear violation of campaign laws, which prohibit the use of public resources for political campaigns.
Rather than letting the two sides slug it out in the private sector as the elections approach, these documents seem to make it clear that the State Transportation Agency (Caltrans) has had their thumb on the scale. As usual, they look like they were trying to dodge that bullet by coordinating their communications with groups such as the League of California Cities and the California Chamber of Commerce, both of whom are fighting the tax repeal. Different efforts appear to have coordinated the work of labor unions who are taking the state’s side.
But even if Caltrans wasn’t paying the PR firms directly with government funds, their state employees were spending time coordinating the efforts. Ethics officials contacted by the AP are divided on the question. While they all agree that it looks really bad, some feel the coordination doesn’t cross the line as long as there wasn’t “too much” time being spent by Caltrans employees in this effort. It seems to be a question of just how bad the fish has to smell before you declare it rotten.
In the end, all of this may backfire on the Democrats who control the state government. The tax repeal issue has fired up voters who will be showing up to cast their ballots for not only the repeal but the Republicans who support it. And if that brings out enough of the GOP base in marginal districts, it could potentially save a number of House seats which are currently seen as being in danger. If there’s any lesson to take away from all this it’s that you can only tax the horse so far before it begins to buck. And when that happens, you need to stay out of the way and let the voters decide for themselves.