The taxpayer-supported Spokane Public Facilities District may have violated campaign rules last month when it sent voters a newsletter depicting passage of a tax measure as “necessary” and “critical.”
Although governments are allowed to spend money to provide unbiased information about proposed tax measures, they are barred from using their resources to promote them or advocate passage.
Some of the wording in a mailer about Measure 1 that the district sent to Spokane County voters appears to promote the proposed sales and hotel tax extension – not just inform the public about it, said Lori Anderson, spokeswoman of the state Public Disclosure Commission, which enforces campaign rules.
The district, which owns and operates the Spokane Convention Center and the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena, has called the proposals the “Staying Competitive, Creating Jobs Projects,” and the phrase appears on the mailer and on the district’s website devoted to the proposal.
“What they’re doing is essentially branding a campaign, and they’re not supposed to run a campaign,” Anderson said.
District CEO Kevin Twohig said the district has an obligation to inform the public about the projects.
“Whether or not the information influences the recipient is subjective and up to the individual,” Twohig said in an email. “The district’s newsletter and other efforts were intended to be objective and to educate using customary channels to distribute information.”
Anderson said other examples of potential problems with the mailer include:
• A headline that says: “Why is Measure 1 Necessary?”
• The use of exclamation points.
• A description of the project as “critical.”
• A headline that says: “Your Spokane Public Facilities District is an Economic Engine for the Spokane Community!”
Twohig said in an interview that the district felt it was operating within the rules and mailed a similar newsletter to residents about the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which were held at the Arena.
“We did the same thing we would do if we were marketing a major event,” Twohig said about the newsletter that focused on Measure 1. “We knew we couldn’t say ‘vote yes,’ and we didn’t, but we also knew that once the name was selected, we would have to educate the voters to connect ‘Staying competitive, creating jobs’ with Measure 1.”
State election rules, however, say “that in no case will the PDC view a marketing or sales effort related to a campaign or election as normal and regular conduct.”
Anderson said the commission offers government agencies the opportunity to review material before it’s finalized to help them follow the rules. The district did not request a review of the mailer.
The commission likely would have advised the district to remove some of the language to avoid appearing to be promoting the measure, Anderson said. The focus should be on the cost and how, specifically, the tax money would be used.
“It’s supposed to be limited to ‘What are we going to change?’ and ‘What are you getting for your money?’ – not all this other information that goes back to marketing the measure,” Anderson said.
The district spent $44,000 on the mailer. In addition, the district has purchased ads that focus on its “Staying competitive, creating jobs” theme in The Spokesman-Review, the Inlander and on several radio and TV stations.
Including the mailer, the district spent about $139,000 on the material. Twohig said the money the district used was not tax dollars.
Anderson said the commission doesn’t investigate possible campaign violations unless it receives a formal complaint. None has been received about the district’s mailer. She said the maximum fine for a violation related to a public agency inappropriately using resources to promote a ballot issue is $10,000.
The district is proposing to extend a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax and a 2 percent room tax to pay for a 91,000-square-foot addition to the Convention Center and other projects, including adding 750 seats to the Arena. The total cost is estimated at $65 million. The taxes were first approved by voters in 1990 and 1991 to pay for the Arena and were extended until 2033 by voters in 2002 to build the Convention Center and for projects at the Spokane Fair and Expo Center and Mirabeau Point. Measure 1 would extend them until 2043.
A separate organization was formed to promote the measure and is allowed to use promotional language and urge voters to vote yes. The group, Citizens for Jobs Now, has raised about $68,000. It printed campaign signs, sent its own mailers and produced TV commercials.