The College of Western Idaho appears to have violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the law in its campaign to pass the $47 million levy on the November ballot. After reviewing hundreds of college emails, obtained via Idaho’s public records law, it is apparent the college has directly coordinated its efforts with, and provided support to, the private advocacy organization CWI YES, thereby using public resources to influence voters. In sum, the college spent $150,000 of taxpayers’ money to help pass a 50 percent increase in the college’s property tax levy to fund the construction of a new health science building.
Ironically, CWI’s previous abuse of the taxpayers’ dime played a major role in spurring on the recent Public Integrity in Elections Act, which prohibits public entities from using public resources to advocate for or against a ballot measure. In 2016, the college faced scrutiny for a similar marketing blitz leading up to a $255 million bond measure to expand its campus.
But the college is attempting to sidestep this prohibition by having CWI YES ask for the “yes” vote. As Laura Mulkey, executive director of the college’s foundation, stated in one email, the goal was to have Mark Browning, Vice President of Communications and Government Affairs at CWI, “inform the groups about the building and the need, and [CWI YES Campaign Manager Gary Hunter] could follow up with a request for support.” As Hunter and Browning stated multiple times in emails, they would “tag team” meetings with key constituencies across the Treasure Valley.
Public resources were spent to carry the political ball to the one-yard line, at which point CWI YES would carry the ball to the end zone.
Each time community organizations, such as local Kiwanis groups, local chambers of commerce, or other associations asked CWI employees for a presentation on the proposed health sciences building, CWI employees suggested bringing Hunter along to ask for a “yes” vote. When Browning set up a meeting with the Idaho Statesman editorial board to discuss the levy he mentioned bringing along two representatives from the CWI YES team to advocate on behalf of the levy.
In addition to scheduling and “tag-teaming” presentations, CWI trustees, directors, and employees took efforts to support the advocacy campaign in other ways. At the behest of CWI YES, college employees helped distribute voter registration forms across the college campuses. When CWI YES staff asked for a pamphlet detailing the compelling reasons to vote for the levy and photos for the CWI YES website, the college staff happily obliged.
The college and the political CWI YES advocacy group is strongly intertwined. The CWI Foundation, the fundraising arm of the college, helped establish CWI YES as a private non-profit back in 2016. Elected CWI trustees played a role in selecting the campaign manager. There have been hundreds of emails between CWI and CWI YES, and weekly meetings to coordinate communications and strategies. Mark Browning, VP of Communications at CWI, and Gary Hunter, Campaign Manager of CWI YES titled themselves the “dynamic duo.”
There is abundant evidence of coordination between the “educational campaign” coming from the college and the CWI YES advocacy campaign. As CWI Chairman of the Board of Trustees Mark Dunham explained to the college communications department when discussing the levy, “I’m always thinking about politics.”
It appears the entire CWI communications team has always been thinking about politics. When the college’s educational mailer about the levy featuring the proposed health sciences building was distributed in early October it was only mailed to registered voters in Ada and Canyon Counties. The mailer certainly was not sent to educate every taxpayer about what is happening at the college their money supports. It was sent to educate potential voters about the benefits of the levy.
When the College of Western Idaho abused public funds to campaign in 2016, the Legislature recognized the way public entities were influencing public elections. Just this year, the Legislature reformed the system and prohibited this kind of abuse. It is clear, however, that the college has continued to guide and direct advocacy efforts despite the new law.
If the public resources spent propping up the CWI YES campaign are not in clear violation of the law, they certainly undermine the spirit of the Public Integrity in Elections Act. CWI must stop spending public resources to advocate on its own behalf. And the Legislature needs to strengthen this law and prohibit public entities from putting their thumb on the scale at the ballot box.