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Are taxpayer-funded Christmas parties legal?

Are taxpayer-funded Christmas parties legal?

November 25, 2009
November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving is here, and the holiday season has begun! That means Christmas, New Year’s and other holiday parties and celebrations are the order of the day, in peoples’ homes, at work, and in the halls of government.

But are publically-funded Christmas and other holiday parties, such as the one we wrote about in McCall last year, legal in Idaho? According to an Attorney General’s opinion, the answer is no.

The Idaho Freedom Foundation has obtained a copy of Attorney General Opinion No. 78-44, dated December 15th, 1978. It was a response to then-Chubbuck City Attorney Donald Burnett, Jr., who asked if it was proper for public employees to use public funds for expenditures for Christmas parties. The opinion answered:

“Without express authority, a municipal corporation may not appropriate the public revenue for celebrations, entertainments, sports and games, etc. Such power cannot be implied.”

The citation came from McQuillin on Municipal Corporations, an often used reference on municipal law. While no case law specifically addressing the use of public funds for Christmas parties was cited in the opinion, then-Attorney General Wayne Kidwell referred to cases in Idaho and other states which addressed the nature of public funds and for what purposes they could be used. From Gem Irrigation District vs. VanDuesen, 31 Idaho 779, 176 Pac. 887, Kidwell quoted:

“Appropriations of public funds and levying taxes to raise funds for the same end rest upon the same principle. If an object cannot have a tax levied for it…then no appropriation of public money can be made to it.”

The Idaho Freedom Foundation searched Idaho statutes, the State Repository, and Attorney Generals’ opinions and guidelines since 1978, and could find nothing superseding AG Opinion 78-44.

We spoke with former Idaho Attorney General David Leroy, now a practicing attorney in Boise. He said while an AG’s opinion is not law, it does carry weight in the courtroom. “For the most part, it is a non-binding, but officially issued interpretation of gray areas of law that may be pertinent to a court decision. As such, its existence doesn’t necessarily sway the court, but the reasonings, the authorities and the citations contained therein would be an excellent roadmap for a judge to follow. It, in the language of the law, switches the burden of persuasion, likely, to the other side to show why that opinion is not valid, has been superseded, or is poorly written.”

So while the issue has apparently never been decided by an Idaho court (to the best of our knowledge and research), a strong case against the use of public money for parties and celebrations for public employees has been made.

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