To ensure “transparent and ethical government,” a “public entity” in Idaho cannot use “public funds” to “advocate” for a “ballot measure.” I.C. 74-602 and 74-603(6). A “public entity” includes a “school district.” I.C. 74-603(6). This means neither District 91 nor its employees shall make or authorize an “expenditure” from “public funds” to “advocate” for a “ballot measure.” I.C. 74-604(1). “Expenditure” means, “payment,” “public funds” means “taxes,” and a “ballot measure” includes a “bond measure.” I.C. 74-603(2), (4) and (7).
“‘Advocate’ does not mean providing factual information about a ballot measure and the public entity’s reason for the ballot measure stated in a factually neutral manner.” I.C. 74-603(b). D91 can state “the cost of indebtedness” for a bond, its “intended purpose,” the “condition of the property to be addressed,” the “date and location of election,” or “other applicable information necessary to provide transparency to electors.” I.C. 74-603(b). D91 may also prepare and distribute to electors an objective statement explaining the purpose and effect of a bond measure, including “the cost per taxpayer” provided it is “based on reasonable estimates prepared in good faith.” I.C. 74-605(4).
Last week, D91 sent a taxpayer funded mailer to patrons across the district. That mailer explained “why now” to pass its bond measure. The mailer answers its own question, saying, “D91 paid 2012 bonds off early saving millions of dollars,” “past bond projects completed on time and on budget,” “D91’s proven track record of financial stewardship,” and “costs will only increase over time.”
In my opinion, these four statements are not “factual information about a ballot measure . . . stated in a factually neutral manner.” These statements are “sales pitches” why D91 patrons should approve the upcoming bond. Telling patrons that “costs will only increase over time” is actually not a fact, but a back-handed opinion/threat to scare patrons. Whether D91 has paid off bonds early and saved money or completed past bond projects timely and on budget have nothing to do with “factual information” about this bond. As such, these statements are unlawful “advocacy.” Finally, many in D91 would dispute D91 has a “proven track record of financial stewardship,” especially where D91 recently and unnecessarily spent over $12 million to join the state health insurance pool.
The mailer also asks, “what will it cost?” In answer to this question, the mailer explains the “difference between existing and new bonds” is “about $18.34 a month on a median priced home.” Idaho Code allows D91 to state “the cost per taxpayer,” not the difference between what some taxpayers pay for existing bonds and what some will pay for a new bond. The truth is that some taxpayers in D91 own bare land (like farmers) and others own commercial buildings. The mailer says nothing about how much these people will pay.
Moreover, the $18.34 per month figure appears to be based on the median price of a home in the City of Idaho Falls, not in the district. This $18.34 per month also appears to be based on an interest rate that D91 knows has gone up already and will likely go up even more causing this $18.34 number to be too low. And nowhere does the mailer say that the bond is $250 million—the most important fact.
In my opinion, D91’s failure to state, in good faith, the “cost of indebtedness” per taxpayer and its sales-pitch statements crossed the line into unlawful “advocacy.” People willing to break the law to get what they want should never be rewarded by giving them what they want.