In 2018, the Idaho Freedom Foundation worked with state lawmakers to pass the “Public Integrity in Elections Act.” The law is specifically designed to prevent government entities from using public money to advocate for the passage or defeat of a bond or levy or to support or defeat a candidate for election.
Unfortunately, the law hasn’t worked. That’s mainly because prior to its passage, special interests groups that defend the government-run education system wanted the bill watered down so that there isn’t really a consequence for breaking the law.
Our original version of the bill called for the possible judicial nullification of elections in which government agencies use public money to advocate the passage of a bond or levy. That provision was removed from the law, and the only thing left are small civil penalties for government officials who violate the statute. The bill leaves it to county prosecutors to weigh in on violations of the law by local governments and the attorney general to weigh in when the violation is by a state agency.
Every prosecutor that has looked at these cases has declined to do anything, even while acknowledging that the law’s been broken. This is why we also advocated making the matter one for the courts instead of leaving the issue in the hands of politicians or their appointees.
Over the last four years, school districts and city governments have continued to electioneer at taxpayer expense. They hire consultants to build out campaigns and strategies to win, send out glossy mailers, and create video campaigns to describe the importance of a yes vote while avoiding the explicit use of the words “vote yes.”
The latest iteration of this electioneering comes from Idaho Falls District 91, an underperforming school district that is seeking a $250 million bond at next week’s general election. The school district sent out a glossy mailer to households in the district glorifying the bond and its supposed benefits.
The district “needs to address growth and overcrowding and improve school safety and security,” the mailer says. “Costs will only increase over time,” it continues. The district has “a proven track record of financial stewardship.” It adds that paying off other bonds early “is saving (taxpayers) millions of dollars.”
This is known as campaigning at taxpayer expense. It’s interesting to point out that if any other person or organization were to spend money simply to report District 91’s failing test scores (less than half of students can read, write, or do math with proficiency) or report that District 91 has an active LGBT club at Skyline High School, that would have to be reported to the government as a campaign expenditure. The district’s campaign activities, meanwhile, are more opaque.
Idaho law allows government entities to spend as much time on campaigns and elections as they do teaching. District 91 is just the latest example of bad behavior which is deserving of significantly worse consequences than what was written into statute four years ago. It’s time for District 91 and other bad actors to be held accountable.