RALEIGH — Public school systems in Durham, Orange, and Montgomery counties, along with the city of Durham and Orange County government, all have violated state law by misusing tax dollars to promote sales-tax referendums on the Nov. 8 ballot.
The John Locke Foundation’s top legal expert makes that argument in a series of letters urging each school system and government agency to shut down the illegal activity.
“In 2010, the state legislature passed laws expressly prohibiting municipalities, counties, and local boards of education from using public funds to endorse or oppose referendums,” said Daren Bakst, JLF Director of Legal and Regulatory Studies, who also sent copies of the letters to the State Board of Elections and to elections boards in all three counties.
In each letter, Bakst urges the school system or government to remove illegal material “immediately” from its website and to “cease disseminating” the material in any manner. He also requests public records connected with the sales-tax referendums.
Durham, Orange, and Montgomery counties are all pursuing voter approval for a 0.25-cent increase in the local sales tax rate. Durham County is also pursuing an additional 0.5-cent sales-tax hike specifically targeting transit programs.
State law violations have taken various forms in the three counties, Bakst said. Durham Public Schools (PDF link to letter) posted a flier on its website with the headline “Quarter Cent Sales Tax=Support for Durham Schools.”
“DPS is making it clear that it equates the sales tax as supporting its schools,” Bakst said. “Any reader of the flier certainly will understand that DPS supports the sales-tax increase. The only possible way to reach a different conclusion would be to believe that a school district does not want to support its own schools. That’s absurd.”
Orange County government’s sales-tax Web page also attracts Bakst’s attention (PDF), particularly because of a video featuring two women discussing the sales tax.
“This video may be the most egregious endorsement of any sales tax by a governmental unit,” Bakst said. “One woman argues that the tax would lead to more jobs by supporting the department that helps business grow. She also explains that the proposed tax is all about supporting public education and development of the economy. No person could reasonably conclude that Orange County government does not support the sales tax after watching this video.”
A video also prompts Bakst’s letter (PDF) to the city of Durham. The local government website features the October installment of the publicly funded “CityLife” program. That video program features four guests speaking in favor of the transit tax and no voices of opposition.
“Such an imbalance on a city-produced program would lead anyone to conclude that the city of Durham favors the tax increase,” Bakst said. “Even the city does not deny that the video program advocates in favor of the tax increase.”
Regardless of their stance on the sales-tax measures, voters in all three counties should be concerned about their school systems and governments misusing public funds, Bakst said.
“The General Assembly has stated clearly that tax dollars should not be used to help a government agency or school system endorse particular candidates, or endorse or oppose a referendum,” Bakst said. “I hope these letters will draw attention to clear, blatant violations. I also hope these letters will help discourage further violations in the future.”